Major border disruption on the horizon as Brexit IT portfolio becomes ‘unmanageable’

The government is scrambling to avoid the risk of major border disruption as work on a plethora of IT systems needed to support trade post-Brexit falls behind schedule.

A Cabinet Office memo seen by Bloomberg cites “critical gaps” in the preparation for the technology to be used by haulage firms and freight forwarders after the transition period after the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) finishes at the end of the year.

The document also mentions that out of the 10 new systems being developed to support Brexit at present, at least three are currently being designed. “This is completely unnecessary and unmanageable with duplication and overlap,” said the memo circulated by the Border and Protocol Delivery Group.

To manage the customs declarations needed to ensure the freight of goods such as food and medicines, the government is building the Smart Freight Service, a web-based application that operators will need to use to know if they have the required paperwork and are able to enter the channel ports.

However, with four months to go until the Brexit transition period expires, the freight industry is growing increasingly concerned that the companies won’t have enough time to train staff on how to use the new system.

According to the leaked memo, the Northern Ireland situation is also worrying, as there is no operating protocol for customs or information on the location of inland checking points and even which systems particular ports will be using. In August 2020, the government announced it was pumping £200m into a Trader Support Service and £155m to develop technology to support traders in the NI border.

In July 2020, the government announced HMRC would get more than £100m for border IT systems. The funding was intended to improve systems to “reduce the burden on traders” and “ensure that new controls can be fully implemented a “roll on, roll off environment” at the border, creating a seamless experience.

That same month, a consultation was launched to gather views on how digital approaches can improve trader and traveller demands by 2025. Ideas gathered through the consultation will inform a full UK border strategy to be published by the end of 2020.

Before the funding for new systems was announced in July, it emerged that HMRC hadn’t started the development of the Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS) IT system, which is intended to allow trucks to declare goods ahead of reaching the border. At the time, the Port of Dover’s head of EU exit proposed just licensing the French IT system instead.

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