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It may date back to 1994 but there's no end in sight for the UK's Chief customs system as Brexit rules beckon

Software dinosaur will run alongside new CDS platform, says HMRC

A top civil servant has said UK tax collector HMRC has not set a date to end use of a vital 26-year-old customs system, even though plans to migrate began seven years ago.

Speaking to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee yesterday, Jim Harra, first permanent secretary and chief executive of HM Revenue and Customs, told MPs that plans to migrate from the Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (Chief) system to the Customs Declaration System (CDS), which began in 2013, had been put on hold as the UK enters the final phase of the Brexit transition period, which ends on 31 December.

"We have to pause the work to migrate traders from Chief onto CDS, because the priority was to retain Chief as the primary platform for the EU-GB imports and exports, and that means that we don't currently have a plan for when we will carry out that migration," he said.

"We are therefore committed to continuing the dual running, which was already part of the CDS programme plan, but has now extended for a much longer period."

IBM was contracted to build CDS in 2013. In 2018, spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) said the target date to migrate all traders from Chief to CDS in January 2019 was "unlikely" because the platform was only due to be released a month earlier.

However, some aspects of customs handling needed to support the Northern Ireland Protocol – designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland – will come from the CDS system. Therefore, HMRC and its suppliers are set to support both systems, without an end to the arrangement in sight.

"In the medium to long term, it would be better for everyone, if it was just one platform, as I suspect dual running of two platforms is going to cause excess costs, certainly for HMRC and governments, and also for [trader] community system providers and software developers," Harra said. "Until we have a new plan, I can't say how long dual running is going to have to continue."

Support for Chief comes under a £168.8m contract awarded by HMRC to Fujitsu without competition in October. The contract had been set to end on 31 March 2021. The new deal with the Japanese IT firm is scheduled to run until 2025, according to a tender document.

Chief was first introduced in 1994. It was managed by BT until 2010, when it was handed over to Aspire, a joint venture between Capgemini, Fujitsu, and HMRC. HMRC ended Aspire in 2017 and in-sourced the work, although it has kept Fujitsu and Capgemini on as contractors until 2022.

Just over a month before the end of the Brexit transition period, other IT systems were causing the Public Accounts Committee concern.

The Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS), which is set to link information on cross-border customs declarations of goods with the vehicle that is transporting them, remains under development by HMRC.

Asked by Hillary Benn MP whether GVMS was still in beta testing, Alex Chisholm, Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office, said the system would go live around 8 December.

"We have completed our build for the release 1 functionality that is required for January, and that is in testing. It will not be implemented, live, until December," he said.

Earlier this month, the the NAO described the first expected release of GVMS as a "minimum viable product".

Another IT system supposed to ensure the smooth departure from EU border arrangements is the "Check an HGV is Ready to Cross the Border" system, formerly known as Smart Freight, also set to go live in December.

It is designed to ensure HGVs carrying exports from the UK to the EU have the necessary paperwork before they get to port. It will also issue Kent Access Permits to give EU-bound trucks permission to go through the UK's south-eastern county, from which the bulk of freight crosses the English Channel, in order to prevent ill-prepared vehicles from creating massive congestion in the area. Kent's Dover port crossing sees around 10,000 trucks per day.

Emma Churchill, director-general of the Cabinet Office's border and protocol delivery group, said: "It's going through what's called its beta phase, in the technical language. We've had a lot of feedback from logistics companies. We released the system very widely in order to get that feedback and we're making a few refinements in response to that feedback. It will absolutely be ready to go to start issuing Kent Access Permits."

Even so, industry groups have complained that the timing of the system so close to the Brexit deadline gives them little time to design, introduce, and test the necessary new business processes. ®

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