Post-Brexit border system hit by delays and IT glitches, UK watchdog says

Project faces ‘major challenges’ as costs spiral, National Audit Office warns

A UK government programme to build a post-Brexit trade border has been hit by delays and computer glitches that will push up the project’s costs to at least £4.7 billion, (€5.5 billion) the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.

Ministers had promised to create the “world’s most effective border” by next year in order to smooth the flow of goods between the UK and the rest of the world.

But the core technology needed to deliver a digitally advanced border is facing “several major challenges”, said the report into the UK government’s 2025 Border Strategy published on Monday.

“In our view, the programme’s objectives and timescales are overly optimistic and continue to underestimate the complexity of what is required,” it said.


The future UK border aims to provide a one-stop-shop for import, export and transit paperwork under what is called a “single trade window”.

However, the NAO found there was “no cross-government integrated delivery plan” for the strategy, which HM Revenue & Customs now says will be delivered “incrementally” by 2027.

The NAO’s downbeat assessment was delivered a month after the introduction of a post-Brexit border checks on EU food and plant imports was hit by IT glitches, causing widespread frustration among hauliers and importers.

The NAO added that the Home Office was also struggling to deliver a new computer system needed for the next phase of the border in October, when all goods must be accompanied by additional “safety and security declarations”.

The NAO said the new system, called Cerberus, still needed to overcome “legislative barriers” in order to share the data with law enforcement agencies. “The Home Office considers that the programme will be challenging to deliver because of its overall complexity,” it added.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said the government needed better cross-Whitehall planning and “a more realistic approach to digital transformation” in order to deliver the new digital border.

Meg Hillier, chair of the House of Commons’ public accounts committee, the parliamentary spending watchdog, said delays and changes “could have been avoided with a clearer vision and better planning”, something the committee “often sees across government”.

Efforts to overhaul the UK’s borders have been beset by political U-turns and delays that have led to public funds being wasted.

The report said ministers spent £62 million on a customs post at Dover that was later not required, while £258 million was spent building eight temporary border facilities to cope with additional demand, but in the event were never needed.

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A £150 million contract awarded to Deloitte and IBM in May last year to deliver the first part of the £349 million single trade window programme is “several months” behind schedule, the NAO found.

Brexit border costs, which have run to £2.6 billion, included £531 million spent between 2020 and 2024 on a scheme to help British traders deal with Northern Ireland, the NAO said.

Yet traders have seen little improvement in the systems, according to experts.

Anna Jerzewska of the consultancy Trade & Borders said: “For the majority of traders, this represents additional costs and administrative burden.”

The past performance of UK customs computer programs suggested the single trade window was “unlikely to be fully completed in the next few years”, she added.

David Henig, UK director at the European Centre for International Political Economy, said the NAO’s report had exposed the gap between the government’s rhetoric on the border and the reality encountered by traders.

“Promises of global leadership or limited extra costs to traders were never credible and became a substitute for what was actually needed — ministerial focus on putting effective plans in place,” he said.

Marco Forgione, director-general of the Institute of Export & International Trade, blamed a “lack of interoperability and collaboration across government and with business” for hobbling the UK’s efforts.

The cabinet office said it was making “good progress” on the border rollout, including introducing the post-Brexit import checks this year in a way that minimised disruption.

“To support traders, we are also launching the single trade window, a single secure gateway, which will make it easier for traders to provide information to government when importing goods,” a spokesperson added. - Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024