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UK Border Force left to rely on ‘legacy technology’

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A National Audit Office (NAO) report has found that the Home Office has failed to deliver improved digital border technology on time, increasing costs by an estimated £173m.

The Home Office has planned to upgrade or replace legacy systems at the border since it launched its e-borders programme in 2003. The Border Force has been using 'Warnings Index' (26 years old) for its passenger watchlist and 'Semaphore' (16 years old) to analyse passenger data.

The government previously announced delivery of “improved digital border systems”, with a planned timetable of March 2019. These projected improvements would provide the Border Force with better information for decision-making about people and goods crossing the UK border.

However, the government has failed to deliver the upgrades, increasing costs by £173m and leaving the Border Force having to continue to rely on decades-old technology. These systems are increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain. The NAO said that the upgrade plan had lacked a timetable and clear objectives, as well as a budget, while the Home Office underestimated the amount of work that needed to be done.

The rollout of the new system has now been pushed back to the end of March 2022, in order to tighten border controls.

“The Home Office has made improvements, but it still faces significant risks in delivery and integrating its new systems against a challenging timetable,” the report said.

The NAO warned of technical issues with the new watchlist system, which had problems with most of its pilot trials last year.

“The Digital Services at the Border programme did not achieve value for money by March 2019, failing to deliver what it intended and leaving Border Force staff to rely on outdated legacy systems,” said NAO head Gareth Davies.

“Since resetting the programme, there have been improvements and the Home Office has a better understanding of the significant risks and challenges ahead. It now needs to build on this work to ensure that it can deliver the programme at the pace and scale it requires.”

Yvette Cooper, chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, said that the report “raises questions about Home Office competence and ministerial oversight of extremely important border technology.”

A Home Office spokesperson added: “Since 2019, following the reset of the programme, industry confidence in this programme has increased with a clear focus and delivery plan put in place. This programme will transform the way we secure and manage the flow of people and goods across the border. It will deliver adaptable and modern technology to improve security, increase efficiency and provide a better experience for travellers.”

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