Launched the year Netscape Navigator was born, the UK's CHIEF customs system finally has a retirement date

Replacement in preparation for 10 years, but not quite ready to replicate legacy functionality


The UK's Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) system is set to retire in 2023, according to a National Audit Office, 10 years after plans to phase it out began and 29 years after it came into service.

CHIEF was due to be replaced by the IBM-built Customs Declaration Service (CDS) in 2019, but delays and Brexit have forced Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to squeeze more life out of the legacy system.

Dating back to 1994, the year Netscape Navigator launched, CHIEF is set to end its service by the close of June 2023, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report titled "The UK border: Post UK–EU transition period".

"HMRC plans to complete key CDS development work by January 2022, which would allow HMRC to transition all users onto CDS. It plans to do this in a phased approach; CHIEF will close to import declarations in September 2022 and close to export declarations in March 2023, allowing CHIEF to be retired by the end of June 2023," it said.

As the dates were communicated externally to the industry in August, most traders connecting to the CDS will have to change their systems as special arrangements designed to ease the impact of Brexit are lifted.

"The current plan will see most traders having to change their customs IT systems at around the same time as customs easements are removed and full import checks are implemented," the NAO said.

HMRC has made preparations to replace CHIEF with IBM's CDS since 2013. The government and Big Blue were planning to have the new system up and running by January 2019.

In 2018, the 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.

Last year, HMRC awarded Fujitsu £168.8m to keep CHIEF up and running – as well as 13 other HMRC applications running on its Virtual Managed Environment (VME) Platform – until 2025.

Despite this, CDS does not appear to be ready. When CHIEF is retired, CDS will "not fully replicate all CHIEF's functionality immediately and workarounds will be required for some low-volume declarations, for example on importing composite goods into GB that contain alcohol and mineral oils," the latest NAO report said.

Overall, the NAO found the government had been largely successful in putting in place its initial operating capability for the border for 1 January 2021, when Brexit became a practical reality at the end of the transition period.

"There were no major systems or process failures, which is a significant achievement given the complexity and scale of the arrangements required," the NAO said. ®

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