A “depressingly familiar” situation of high staff turnover at the Home Office has contributed to ongoing problems with one of its key border control programmes, MPs have said.
In 2003, the Home Office began trying to ensure that data on people entering the UK by air, rail and sea was collected and processed before they reach the border, in a bid to make it easier for authorities to identify potential security threats.
But the department’s efforts to get a proper system in place through the e-borders scheme and its successors have faced a number of setbacks over the past decade.
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A contract it entered into with private firm Raytheon in 2007 — intended to collect data on 95% of those travelling to the UK within three years — was cancelled in 2010, with the department having to pay the company £150m in an out of court settlement, plus £35 million in legal costs.
As it stands, the Home Office currently collects data on just 86% of those coming to Britain in advance.
In its latest report, the Public Accounts Committee says that while the Home Office has improved the resilience of existing systems since the end of the Raytheon deal, it still “does not have a clear picture of the management information it has or needs to manage the UK border”.
The MPs say frequent changes in leadership and an initially inflexible commercial approach had played a part in the programme’s troubles.
And they argue that while the Major Projects Authority has issued seven warning about e-borders programmes since 2010 — with the latest assessment an amber/red — former and current officials “were worryingly dismissive that these warnings and concerns suggested fundamental problems”.
They said: “A common theme in our reports and those of the previous committee has been a failure to keep people in the job long enough to take responsibility for seeing projects through, or managing them until a particular phase has been completed.”
“e-Borders and its successor programmes continue this trend. There have been eight programme directors in the e-Borders and successor programmes, including five in the critical years before signing the contract with Raytheon.
“Since 2010 there have also been five different senior responsible owners for the programme.”
"Staff turnover makes it difficult to hold individuals to account"
The MPs acknowledge steps taken by the Home Office to improve its governance arrangements for the borders programme, pointing out that it has now moved from the “previous single-programme structure for the successor programmes to a portfolio of programmes, each with its own leadership and programme board but under one overarching governance board”.
But while the committee says the new structure “provides greater confidence that these programmes would be delivered”, it says problems with staff turnover “seem set to continue”, with the director of the portfolio leaving in January of this after just 16 months in the job.
PAC warns: “Staff turnover makes it difficult to hold individuals to account for progress delivering these programmes as changes in leadership inevitably lead to changes in strategy and scope.”
The committee is also critical of the way the Home Office structured its contract with Raytheon, opting for a fixed-price deal with payments dependent on progress made, something the MPs say did not allow for the flexibility required.
“National Audit Office guidance on IT procurement from the time corroborates the need to break development and implementation into manageable steps which a fixed, milestone-based, payment arrangement cannot do,” PAC says.
Lin Homer, who was chief executive of the now-abolished UK Border Agency at the time it cancelled the Raytheon contract, told the committee during its evidence session last year that the “vast majority” of the agency’s border progammes had been “delivered and delivered secure” before the 2012 Olympics.
“Elements of the e-borders programme have not been delivered as fast as we had expected, but very significant elements of it, including checking 97% of non-EU traffic, were delivered by the time I left at the beginning of 2011,” she said. “I don’t think it is a programme that has failed to deliver. It was a contract that failed.”
Meanwhile, Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill (pictured) stressed that the “essential capabilities that are required to secure the border” were in place.
“We do have, and have had throughout this, the capabilities necessary to secure the country,” he told PAC.
“It is not as efficient as we would like and it is not as joined up as we would like. We do not have that and we are working on it, but we do have the capabilities to secure the country. We have 100% check at the border. As the report says, 86% of people are checked twice.”
"The stop, start approach has cost the taxpayer dear"
Launching the report, committee chair Meg Hillier (pictured) said the Home Office had displayed “a history of poor management and a worrying complacency about its impact on taxpayers”.
“It is accepted that successful completion of this project is essential to the security of our international borders. Yet the original target date has long passed and we are still at least three years away from delivery. The stop, start approach has cost the taxpayer dear,” she added.
“I am careful to say ‘at least’ three years from delivery because we are not convinced warnings about the progress of this project have been treated with sufficient gravity, nor that sufficient action has been taken to prevent a repeat of past problems.
“Some of these are depressingly familiar to this Committee, not least the damaging effects of disjointed leadership and weaknesses in the handling of data. We have also seen another poorly-conceived commercial partnership end in expensive failure.
“If the Home Office is to complete this project before the decade is out then it must get its house in order now—starting by setting out exactly what it expects to achieve this year, and who will be held to account for it.”