Key technology systems needed to support the UK border after the post-Brexit transition period seem “impossible to deliver”, according to a report by the Institute for Government (IfG).
The report warned that the full impact of Brexit would not be felt immediately, and government would not be judged on its preparedness for it, on 1 February 2020, but at the end of the transition period, when practical and administrative realities will be evident and obvious – so individuals, government and businesses need to be prepared.
“If critical systems are not ready, or if they experience major issues, it will be evident. Major changes to government systems at the border, or in regulation, often take years from the point at which the policy is decided,” the report noted.
Changing government systems and processes, then educating citizens about those changes, is not simple and takes time, according to the report. This includes building capability at the border, introducing new public bodies or making big changes to existing ones, designing new systems to replace ones that currently exist at European Union (EU) level and making changes in areas such as immigration rules.
Some of that work will be ready by December 2020, but other areas will be partially ready, causing disruption for organisations that have failed to prepare. The IfG noted that a bridging period to allow for a phased implementation would be useful, though there is no guarantee that could be a possibility.
Regarding customs, the report cited the evaluation of former HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) chief executive Jonathan Thompson, who said the proposed arrangement involving rebates depending on the final destination of the goods would take up to five years to develop and implement.
A National Audit Office report from October 2019 found that HMRC had opted for a multimillion-pound enhancement of a legacy platform rather than working on its planned replacement. The department chose to improve the legacy platform, Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (Chief), because the replacement, the Customs Declarations Service (CDS), would not be ready to support increased volumes of goods moving under transit arrangements and requiring checks.
The report also noted the situation around goods crossing the Great Britain-Northern Ireland border, where declarations on animal health, VAT, tariffs, standards, rules of origin and potentially rules of destination may be needed, and deemed the 11-month timeline for compliance “almost certainly undeliverable”.
The largest IT organisation in UK government focused on Brexit is currently based at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), where six new cloud-based platforms were introduced to deal with the new requirements.
Speaking to Computer Weekly in June 2019, director for EU Exit Delivery in Defra’s digital data and technology services team, Jo Broomfield, said there was reason for concern when it came to systems readiness.
“Whenever you’ve got a time-critical project such as EU Exit and you’ve got new IT services being built, of course you’re right to be concerned. Those of us who work in this space know that major IT deliveries have a lot of variables and risks that can manifest themselves,” he said at the time.
Important details for how new systems and processes will work after Brexit may not be available until after a UK-EU future relationship has been agreed, causing further complications, the IfG report noted. “It would leave government with just a matter of weeks to reflect a new deal in those new systems and processes,” it added.