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Digital Border programme cost more than doubles to £311m

9 December 2020: The National Audit Office has reported that completion of the Digital Services at the Border programme has been delayed by three years to March 2022 due to escalating costs and that risks remain to the revised timetable.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has concluded that the delayed Digital Services at the Border programme did not deliver value for money for taxpayers between its start in 2014 and 2019 when it was reset.

In its report on the programme, the NAO states that expected costs have increased by £173m, with delays in delivering the programme resulting in the Home Office continuing to rely on existing systems. This is despite the significant increase in border movements to be recorded in 2021 following the end of the Brexit transition period.

Securing the border is no easy task, with more than 141 million passengers arriving in the UK in 2019-20 through more than 270 border crossings and 56 major entry points. Freedom of movement within the EU has meant that the Home Office has not needed to record people moving between the UK and EU until now, but this will change after the end of the Brexit transition period when all movements (other than those between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) will need to be tracked.

An unsuccessful attempt to deliver an ‘e-borders’ system started in 2003 but by 2010 the Home Office had cancelled the contract. In 2014, the current programme started with the aim of achieving e-borders by March 2019, replacing existing systems no longer fit for purpose. This was not ready in time, and in 2019 the programme was rescheduled with delivery pushed back to March 2022. 

The three main systems within the programme are Border Crossing (a more advanced watchlist to check arriving passengers against than the 26-year-old Warnings system), Advance Border Control (a more advanced replacement of the 16-year-old Semaphore system providing analysis of watchlist data based on passenger information collected in advance of travel) and Advanced Freight Targeting Capability (technology to identify and target goods deemed at risk of illegal entry, replacing 36 existing systems). Only a pilot version of Border Crossing was in live operation in March 2019, while the version that went live in September 2019 was unreliable and its use had to be suspended in March 2020

The NAO reports that although the Home Office had a vision of what it wanted to achieve with the 2014 programme, it did not have a realistic implementation plan, lacking clear objectives, a timetable for delivery and a budget. The decision to leave the EU, along with other changing requirements, meant that the plan was amended several times to incorporate a new digitised immigration system, but issues in resourcing, oversight and governance led the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) to rate the programme as amber-red in four of the five years leading up to 2019.

The reset of the programme in 2019 resulted in a more deliverable plan, but this included removing from the specification the data requirements of law enforcement agencies for risk-based checking of people and goods crossing the border. Responsibility for these aspects has been transferred to another team within the Home Office, which is now setting out the timetable for the delivery of this work.

The report also found that the Home Office underestimated the technology requirements of the programme and the supporting capability necessary to deliver digital services at the border. Risks around resourcing were highlighted more than once, although the Home Office says that it has learned lessons from this experience which will help support successful delivery of the Border Crossing system.

The Home Office says it is now confident it has the right people with the right skills to deliver the programme, with an increase of staff working on the programme after trials of the Border Crossing system only covered a significant minority of passengers.

Although the governance arrangements were revised in September 2019 with a view to making programme board discussions more focused on priority issues, the Home Office did not review the management information being received by the board and how technical delivery was reported and understood across the programme.

The Home Office now has a challenging schedule to deliver its new systems by the end of March 2022, including the more technically complex aspects of the programme with which it has previously struggled. Even after the reset, it has missed some planned milestone dates. 

With further checks planned, such as from July 2021 confirming whether EU citizens have settled status in the UK, it will need to have the programme in full operation otherwise significant delays could be caused at the borders whilst staff check this information on other systems. Embedding front-line officers in the implementation team is hoped to mitigate risks of system instability.

Many stakeholders are relying on this programme and there have not been clear communications to them about how and when their requirements will be met. Although the IPA has reduced its risk rating from amber-red to amber, significant risks to the delivery of the programme remain.

The NAO concludes that the Home Office did not deliver value for money between 2014 and 2019 and failed to meet its original objectives, while there remain significant risks to delivering the programme by its revised timetable.

Commenting on the report, Alison Ring OBE FCA, Director for Public Sector at ICAEW, said: “This is a high priority programme, and the Home Office needs to stay on top of progress given these systems play an important role in the security of the UK. Staff working on the borders need to have the right tools to be able to perform their jobs efficiently and effectively.

“While the decision to leave the EU did require a significant expansion in scope, the failures experienced in the programme to date have highlighted – yet again – how the government struggles to design and implement technological solutions that work and are delivered on time and to budget. Despite red flags for several years running, it is only in the last year that the skilled people and resources needed have been obtained in order to make successful delivery a possibility. Better planning from the outset might have both saved money and provided more effective border security in time for the UK’s exit from the EU Customs Union and Single Market.”

Read the full report here.