Delay upgrading the UK's legacy border systems has added £336m to taxpayers' bill

Spending watchdog report retells sad history of Home Office IT failings

The UK Home Office has added £336m to the cost of running its border management IT systems as delays and uncertainty continue to dog the programme, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

In July 2019, the government department decided to reset the project to update and replace vital systems supporting cross-border security, having failed to meet deadlines or achieve value for money in its 2014-2019 Digital Services at the Border programme, the spending watchdog said.

The move to delay delivery to 2021-22 has added £336m in costs but, because the Home Office had underspent on its original plans, the net increase is £173m, the report said.

The Home Office has a history of problems delivering IT projects designed to help secure the UK's borders. In 2015, the NAO said the £830m e-Borders project, which began in 2003, failed to deliver value for money after the department cancelled a £750m contract with Raytheon. It later agreed to pay the supplier £150m following a protracted court case.

Warnings Index, created in 1995, and Semaphore, built as a pilot in 2004, are just two examples of how a failure to replace legacy systems is adding to security risks as well as costs to the UK taxpayer.

"The Department considers these legacy systems are increasingly expensive, difficult to maintain and unfit for the future needs of government," the NAO said. "They use obsolete technology, cannot process the number of passengers that, before the coronavirus pandemic, was expected in the future, and their use presents security and legal risks… Their ongoing maintenance requires hardware, technology and skills that are no longer easily available."

Semaphore was built by IBM for analysing advance passenger information provided by carriers and was due to be replaced by the Raytheon-built system until it was canned in 2010.

"The Department has not fully developed a detailed timetable for the modernisation of Semaphore," the NAO said. "Its plans are already slipping as its work to move Semaphore to a cloud-based environment and to stabilise the system is delayed."

IBM is set to get £5m in software licences for Semaphore between 2019 and 2022, as part of a £45m contract extension.

Semaphore was slated to move to the cloud in November 2020. The Register has contacted the Home Office for an update and its reaction to the NAO report.

Meanwhile, Warning Index, which comes under a Fujitsu contract, does not have a clear replacement either.

"The Department has not yet set out a detailed strategy for replacing the legacy contracts," the NAO warned. "It can choose to extend the Fujitsu and IBM contracts beyond 2022, but it would need to negotiate the detailed terms of such an extension, including its cost, with suppliers."

As well as having problems retiring legacy border systems, the Home Office struggles to introduce new ones. Designed to access a watchlist of people of interest, Border Crossing went live in a pilot in September 2019 but "technical difficulties" caused "progressively increased downtime (both planned and unplanned)," the NAO said.

In December 2019, six out of the seven pilot ports were using it to check fewer than 20 per cent of passengers. In March 2020, the programme board suspended Border Crossing to improve system stability and support. It had been available for 54 per cent of the days it was in live operation. The department told the NAO an increase in technical capability and resources meant it could now deliver the programme. ®

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