Brexit and the UK border Contents

1The effectiveness of UK border management

1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Home Office, UK Border Force, HM Revenue & Customs, and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.1

2.Effective management of the border requires government departments to maintain security, while processing the huge numbers of people and goods that arrive at the border each year quickly and efficiently. In 2016, more than 310 million people and nearly 500 million tonnes of freight crossed the UK border. In the same year, the Home Office made 16.3 million decisions about the rights of citizens from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) to enter the UK. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) currently processes around 55 million customs declarations on imports and exports each year. Departments managing the border have to deal with increasing numbers of people and goods: since 2005, passenger arrivals and the value of imports have increased 27% and 46% respectively. Workload could increase still further once the UK leaves the EU. The number of decisions needing to be made about permitting people or goods to cross the border could increase by 230% and 360% respectively, depending on the outcome of negotiations.2

3.Border Force, part of the Home Office, is the main government organisation working at the border. It is responsible for securing the border and managing the flow of people and goods. A large number of other government organisations, however, have important border policy or operational responsibilities. In particular, HMRC is responsible for collecting tax, duties and excise, and processing customs declarations. The Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is one of the bodies responsible for controlling the import of animals, plants and products of animal or plant origin.3

4.Good quality data is crucial to effective border management.4 Decisions on what goods to search, what private jets border staff should meet and which people should be stopped from travelling, are all made based on assessments of risk, which require data to be accurate.5 The Home Office told us that it had made “huge strides” improving the amount of data it collects and how it uses it.6 For example the Home Office can now use data collected on exit checks to better target their enforcement efforts.7 Notwithstanding these improvements, the Home Office and HMRC told us that some data gaps remained. In 2014 the National Audit Office reported that 84% of removal cases were missing some information and the Home Office did not confirm that this had been solved, saying only that “incremental steps” had been taken to improve technology to make it easier for staff to check data in future. Meanwhile, HMRC uses information provided by shipping agents to decide whether to search the contents of cargo containers, but often this information is extremely limited. HMRC told us that there have been occasions when “you can have 40 tonnes-worth of a container described in one word”.8

5.Another challenge to efficient border management is the fact that operating processes at the border often rely on paper-based and old or legacy IT systems.9 For example, the Warnings Index system, which is used to collect information on persons of interest to the authorities, was introduced in 1994.10 HMRC told us that around 85 different IT systems currently operate at the border, and of those, 29 or 30 systems will need to be changed or replaced as the UK prepares to exit the EU. Five of these will be completely new systems and three will be new replacements for existing systems. These systems will not be in place by March 2019.11

6.It is not clear that government departments can successfully deliver the future capabilities required, given that departments have often struggled to deliver large IT systems. For example, the e-borders programme, which was designed to improve the collection, analysis and exploitation of advance passenger information, was started by the Home Office in 2003, launched in 2007 and then closed in 2010 after suffering delays and poor performance. Its cancellation caused a major commercial dispute that cost the government £150 million to resolve and the Home Office also had to spend £89 million upgrading the systems the programme was intended to replace.12 A successor, the Digital Services at the Border (DSAB) programme, will not now be delivered until 2019, sixteen years after the programme was first envisaged.13 One of the issues that contributed to the difficulties delivering the e-borders and DSAB programmes was the high turnover of senior staff, however the Home Office was unable to tell us the exact number of different programme directors the programmes had had since 2003.14 The Home Office has experienced difficulties with other large technology programmes. The Immigration Case Work (ICW) programme was cancelled in 2010 after delivering significantly less than expected, despite costing £350 million. The Home Office told us that the Immigration Platform Technologies (IPT) programme is its other major border IT programme. The IPT programme is the successor to the failed ICW programme.15

7.Departments have struggled to effectively predict demands at the border and this has hampered their ability to predict how many staff they need and where they should be allocated.16 In 2013, Border Force had to reverse substantial reductions in staff it had made using poor demand forecasts. Border Force admitted that the ‘Dynamic Response Tool’ it uses to forecast demand has “had some criticisms in the past for not being effective enough” but told us how it was now using advance passenger information and doing more work with local ports to improve its effectiveness.17

1 C&AG’s Report, The UK border, session 2017–19, HC 513, 20 October 2017

2 C&AG’s Report, pp 8, 25, 27

3 C&AG’s Report, pp 11, 12

4 Qq 35, 50, 66

5 Qq 29, 43–44

6 Q 50

7 Q 65

8 Qq 52–55

9 Qq 26–36

10 Q 37

11 Qq 32–35

12 C&AG’s Report, Page 19

13 Qq 14, 38

14 Qq 2–3, 14

15 Q 54; Committee of Public Accounts, Reforming the UK border and immigration system, Twentieth Report of Session 2014–15, HC 584, 29 October 2014

16 Qq 46–48, 57–60

17 Q 47; C&AG’s Report, page 23

5 December 2017