MPs flag Whitehall’s poor record at delivering critical border programmes
Members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee have warned that Whitehall departments are making risky assumptions about the need for new UK border arrangements from 2019, and are potentially jeopardising post-Brexit security.
A new report from the committee says too much faith is being placed in the agreement of a transitional period with the EU, meaning border checks will remain unchanged after March 2019 – allowing time to develop the systems and infrastructure that new border arrangements will require.
MPs said history showed that even when the implementation of critical programmes was given the go-ahead, government departments had a “poor track record” of delivering them, making the panel “sceptical” Whitehall was up to the challenges of planning for post-Brexit borders, or having enough people to manage them.
Their report said that departmental claims a “no-deal scenario” was being prepared for were undermined by an expectation that there will not be many changes after March 2019, “whatever the position” – potentially exposing the UK to risks on “day one” of Brexit.
It also criticised the cross-departmental Border Planning Group for having had just seven meetings since its creation in March, a situation MPs said they were “extremely concerned” about. Members were also concerned that no single officer or department within the group had overall responsibility for managing the UK’s borders.
But some of the most stinging observations in the report came in MPs’ assessment of departments ability to manage change on-time and on-budget when programmes had been committed to, meaning that “too many border processes” still relied on ageing IT, or were paper-based.
“There have been significant failures in the past when implementing programmes intended to improve the management of the UK border,” the report said. “Most notably, the Home Office e-borders programme to improve the collection, analysis and exploitation of advance passenger information started in 2003 but was delayed and eventually cancelled in 2010, leaving government with a major contractual dispute that cost £150m to resolve. A successor programme, Digital Services at the Border, will not be complete until 2019, some 16 years later.”
The report said that around 30 of the 85 IT systems currently used at the UK’s borders would need to be replaced or changed in some way when the UK leaves the EU, including five entirely new systems and three replacements.
“Major changes to border management are difficult to make and will require strong coordination across government and with many stakeholders,” the report said. “Given the track record it seems unlikely that all the new systems needed to manage the border effectively after we exit the EU will be successfully delivered, and even if things go to plan, departments accept already that not all the systems would be ready by March 2019.”
Committee chair Meg Hillier said PAC members were alarmed at the “weak contingency planning” they had witnessed across Whitehall.
“Government preparations for Brexit assume that leaving the EU will present no additional border risks from freight or passengers. It has acted – or rather, not acted – on this basis,” she said. “This approach, in the context of what continues to be huge uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, might generously be described as cautious. But against the hard deadline of Brexit it is borderline reckless – an over-reliance on wishful thinking that risks immediately exposing the UK to an array of damaging scenarios.”
Hillier said that last year 300 million people and 500 million tonnes of freight had crossed UK borders, and that post-Brexit the number of official decisions required about such movements could treble in terms of people, and quadruple for freight.
“These figures should concern all in government and, in our view, its current approach is not fit for purpose,” she said.
In its recommendations, the PAC said it would expect “all departments” to be in a position to update members on their progress with border arrangements for Brexit when they appeared at future evidence sessions.
There have been significant failures in the past when implementing programmes intended to improve the management of the UK border
It also asked the Border Planning Group to report back by March, detailing its current work streams, providing evidence that its assumptions on border risk were realistic, and confirming the existence of a lead officer with responsibility for co-ordinating the group’s work.
A government spokesman said departments were “fully focused” on making the UK’s exit from the European Union a success.
“We have set out proposals for an ambitious future trade and customs relationship with the EU and we will be setting out proposals for the future immigration system in due course,” he said.
“We will, of course, ensure we have the resources we need to continue to run an effective customs, borders, and immigration system in the future.”