Border Force ‘using out-of-date technology amid delays in improvement plan’

PA

Border Force staff are using out-of-date technology to decide who is allowed into the UK after a Home Office plan to upgrade computer systems was delayed by three years, according to a report.

Whitehall’s spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) found the Government department “did not deliver improved digital border systems to its planned timetable of March 2019” which has “increased costs by £173 million and means it continues to rely on legacy technology”.

The rollout of the new system has been pushed back to the end of March 2022, the NAO said, adding: “The Home Office has made improvements, but it still faces significant risks in delivering and integrating its new systems against a challenging timetable.”

Border Force is using a 26-year-old system for its passenger watchlist to check whether suspects and persons of interest are trying to enter the country, while another system which analyses passenger data is 16 years old, according to the findings.

The department set out to upgrade the old computer systems in 2014 because they were “increasingly expensive”, difficult to maintain and unfit for work to be carried out in the future.

Improvements were intended to provide UK Border Force staff with “better information to make decisions about people crossing the border and to track goods entering and exiting the UK,” the NAO said.

But the plan lacked a timetable and clear objectives as well as a budget. The amount of work needing to be done was also underestimated by the Home Office, according to the body.

In July last year, the Home Office updated the plan as it worked to tighten control over who enters the UK and decided to delay its introduction by three years, adding hundreds of millions of pounds to the bill for the work.

The department “estimates that the net impact of its failure to deliver the programme by the end of March 2019 as originally planned is an additional cost of £173 million,” the NAO said.

The report also warned of technical problems with the Home Office’s new system to monitor the watchlist of suspects and people of interest, which will check passenger details against electronic visas and look at whether they have a legal right to remain in the UK under the EU Settlement Scheme.

The NAO said an earlier version of the new programme – called Border Crossing – had problems with most of its pilot trials in December last year, with six out of seven ports using it to check less than 20% of passengers. The system is set to be rolled out to 56 ports by the middle of June.

Head of the NAO Gareth Davies said: “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.

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

The Home Office said it had accepted the NAO’s recommendations.

A spokesman 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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