PAC report: Home Office’s IT border projects are ‘a litany of failures’

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has issued a warning about the costs of failed UK border IT projects, blaming a lack of effective management, leadership, and oversight at the Home Office.

Dev Kundaliya

According to the PAC, delays to the new Digital Services at the Border (DSAB) programme have so far cost the taxpayer £173m – exactly the cost that the National Audit Office warned about last year.

The Committee’s report [pdf] states that the Home Office had a poor record of launching immensely expensive IT projects that fail to deliver for the taxpayer, characterising them as a ‘litany of failures’.

In a statement to the BBC, the Home Office claimed the problems were ‘historical’ and had been fixed.

Earlier this year Matthew Rycroft, the Home Office’s permanent secretary, agreed that £173m was a “huge” amount of money. He claimed the Home Office was doing “everything” it could to avoid that figure going up any further.

The Home Office first launched its e-Borders programme in 2003, with a plan to complete it by 2011. However, there were repeated delays, and the Department announced the new DSAB programme in 2014, as the latest attempt to achieve its objectives by March 2019.

The programme was meant to replace the legacy Warnings Index and Semaphore systems with three new systems: Border Crossing, Advance Border Control (ABC), and Advanced Freight Targeting Capability (AFTC). The aim was to provide UK border officials with better information to make decisions about people and goods entering and exiting the UK.

Since 2014, the Department has changed its priorities to support its broader ambition for a digitised immigration system in the wake of Brexit.

In 2019, the Department announced it was resetting the DSAB programme and pushing delivery back to the end of March 2022. It decided to upgrade and improve Semaphore.

Despite spending millions on border IT systems in the past 10 years, workers still have to use outdated technology to decide whether an individual can be allowed to enter the UK, according to the PAC report.

Just 300 frontline users are currently using the new Border Crossing system at seven locations. 7,000 users were supposed to be using it at 56 locations by June this year.

When completed, the DSAB project should be able to process 140 million passengers a year at UK borders, although MPs doubt that the system would be able to cope.

‘It still has no proof that systems can cope with passenger volumes that existed prior to Covid-19, let alone the 6 per cent annual growth in the volume of passengers it is allowing for above the 140 million people that arrived in the UK annually prior to Covid-19,’ said the National Audit Office’s report in December last year.

Commenting on the delays in border IT projects, Tom Fairbairn, distinguished engineer at Solace, said: “The key to overcoming the problem of legacy technologies at the border, which is certain to have a wide range of effects on the UK, is that authorities appear to be attempting a point-to-point integration.”

“While a tried and tested method for some cases, this approach won’t work here, given the fact that there are over 20 government agencies whose systems need to be integrated. They are simply too many to go for the point-to-point approach, which is best for integrating two systems. With this amount of actors, loosely coupled systems and agility are the key, and the only way to achieve that is with an event-driven approach. This will allow for information to flow between points in real-time, seamlessly and accurately, ensuring citizens get the best possible experience.”

Mike Kiersey, principal technologist at Boomi, said: “The successful digitalisation of processes at the border will be the fundamental step to successful operations and data management in the months and years to come. If the border continues to rely on outdated legacy technologies, the technical issues outlined will continue, causing massive disruption.”

“Systems modernisation can be a significant challenge, but in this instance, it is imperative that proactive steps are made. Core legacy applications across government departments need to be open via APIs to enable emerging technologies to enter into the architecture, to digitally capture information at the borders. These systems need to be able to capture, prepare and process the data within, to ensure swift processing times and avoid deadlock.”