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Border security tech botches have ‘staggering’ costs

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have warned of the enormous costs of years of failures in implementing and using border security technology, after the planned upgrade of IT systems was delayed by three years.

The committee condemned the Home Office’s “miserable record of exorbitantly expensive digital programmes that fail to deliver for the taxpayer or for border security”, which it blamed on a lack of effective leadership, management, and oversight.

In December, a National Audit Office report concluded that delays to the Digital Services at the Border (DSAD) program has so far added costs of £173m.

The Home Office had planned to upgrade or replace legacy systems at the border since it launched its e-borders program in 2003. The Border Force has been left using 'Warnings Index' (almost 30 years old) for its passenger watchlist and 'Semaphore' (almost 20 years old) to analyse passenger data; these legacy systems are becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain.

The government abandoned the e-borders program in 2011 and said that it would approve the IT systems – providing better decision-making tools about which people and goods should be prevented from entering the UK – with a delivery completion date of March 2019. It set out to upgrade the systems in 2014. However, these upgrades have not been delivered. The upgrade has been reduced in scope and pushed its completion date back to the end of March 2022.

Part of the DSAD program is being used by just 300 border staff, compared to the 7,000 the government hoped to be using it by June. It is hoped that the new system will be used to process 140 million people every year. The report also said that the department is yet to deliver another core part of the upgrade; modernising rather than replacing Semaphore.

The PAC report said that the Home Office is responsible for a “litany of failure” and continues to struggle with delivering the technology at “staggering cost to the taxpayer”. Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft acknowledged to the committee that the £173m figure is “a very large amount of money and we are doing everything that we can to avoid that number going up any further”.

The report concluded that the department had failed to identify, acknowledge, and be transparent about the problems it encountered in implementing the new technology.

The committee said that the Home Office is yet to demonstrate it is capable of handling a return to normal numbers of travellers as the coronavirus pandemic retreats, let alone a projected 6 per cent annual rise in numbers. The report said that the department must lay out how its approach has changed to address problems, in order to ensure that the technology is delivered by its new deadline of March 2022.

“Immigration and border security are among the biggest political issues of our time,” said PAC committee chair Meg Hillier. “It is incredible that the Home Office can have failed so badly, for so long, to deliver technology that is crucial to our national security objectives, crucial to protecting the public from terrorism, crime, illegal immigration and trafficking, and crucial to facilitating legitimate movement across the border.

“The Home Office has struggled to get to grips with the technical challenges, resettling the program and changing the leadership repeatedly. And it is the taxpayer hit by both the financial cost and the risks to our security.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Home Secretary agrees with the assessment made by the [PAC] of historical issues at the Home Office. She is working closely with the permanent secretary to make changes within the department and deliver value for money and results for the taxpayer. Following the reset of the [DSAD] program in 2019, the rollout of the new Border Crossing system is on schedule to be completed by the end of June 2021, delivering increased efficiency and providing a better experience for travellers.”

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