Border tech failures ramp up Home Office’s ‘miserable’ digital record, MPs warn

Report blames “lack of effective leadership, management and oversight” for £173m cost of delayed Digital Services at the Border programme
Steve Parsons/PA

By Jim Dunton

12 Mar 2021

A scathing report from parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has accused the Home Office of routinely failing to “identify, acknowledge and be transparent about problems” with its technology programmes and wasting billions of pounds in the process.

MPs’ latest report on Digital Services at the Border said delays to the programme, which was originally supposed to be operational by 2017, had so far cost taxpayers £173m and that there was a “clear risk” it would not be delivered by the current March 2022 target.

The report said that the “Border Crossing” part of the programme was currently being used by only 300 border staff, even though the target was for 7,000 staff to be using the system by June, and that previous attempts to roll out Border Crossing had “experienced technical difficulties”.

MPs said the Home Office had “no proof” its new systems would be able to cope with passenger volumes that existed before the coronavirus pandemic, “let alone the 6% annual growth” in numbers the department predicted.

DSAB is designed to replace legacy systems to keep track of people entering the UK, including Warninigs Index and Semaphore. It was launched in 2014 as the successor programme to the e-borders programme, which was abandoned in 2011 following eight years of work and at least £340m spent on the project. MPs said a further £185m was spent the legal case for cancelling the programme, which was contracted out to defence firm Raytheon.

PAC members said the Home Office had failed to “identify, acknowledge and be transparent about problems” in delivering tech programmes that were “crucial” to national security objectives of protecting the public from terrorism, crime, illegal immigration and trafficking.

They added DSAB could not be viewed in isolation from the delayed Emergency Services Network programme, which is currently running six years late at a cost to the public purse of £650m a year, and continued  a “miserable record of exorbitantly expensive digital programmes”.

Their report noted that DSAB had been overseen by four senior responsible owners and three Home Office permanent secretaries since its launch, and that last year the department’s entire major projects portfolio had been rated “red”, meaning that it was impossible to deliver on time and on budget.

MPs accepted there had been a recognition from the department that “cultural change” was required, along with “increasing continuity of leadership” for major programmes, improved staff skills and better incentives to address problems at earlier stages of programmes.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said the Home Office had a presided over a litany of failure in relation to border technology that stretched back almost 20 years.

“Immigration and border security are among the biggest political issues of our time,” she said. “It is incredible that the Home Office can have failed so badly, for so long, to deliver technology that is crucial to our national security objectives: crucial to protecting the public from terrorism, crime, illegal immigration and trafficking, and crucial to facilitating legitimate movement across the border.

“The Home Office has struggled to get to grips with the technical challenges, resetting the programme and changing the leadership repeatedly. And it is the taxpayer hit by both the financial cost and the risks to our security.”

The PAC report said a “lack of effective leadership, management and oversight” was the root cause of the Home Office’s technology failings.

MPs gave permanent secretary Philip Rycroft three months to review the department’s major technology programmes and provide an updated assessment of each project’s progress and the impact he expects it to have.

They also called on him to spell out what the department was doing differently to make sure that the past leadership and oversight issues with the DSAB programme were addressed.

A Home Office Spokesperson said home secretary Priti Patel agreed with the PAC’s assessment of “historical issues” at the department.

“She is working closely with the permanent secretary to make changes within the department, and deliver value for money and results for the taxpayer,” they said.

“Following the reset of the Digital Services at the Border programme in 2019, the rollout of the new Border Crossing system is on schedule to be completed by the end of June 2021, delivering increased efficiency and providing a better experience for travellers.”

They added that the Home Office was “on track” to train 4,350 Border Force officers on Border Crossing by June, which they said would meet anticipated operational demand.

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