Post-Brexit border plan suffering from resourcing and oversight issues, NAO warns

Watchdog says government's border plan lacks an integrated cross-government delivery plan, while programmes face resourcing uncertainty
Photo: Amani A/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

20 May 2024

The timely and effective delivery of the UK’s post-Brexit border strategy is at “significant risk” due to competition for resources between departments and insufficient cross-government reporting and accountability mechanisms.

A new report by the National Audit Office on post-Brexit changes to border controls warns that the government’s plan to establish “the world’s most effective border” by 2025 is suffering from “significant implementation challenges”.

The 2025 UK Border Strategy, published in December 2020, set out the government’s plan to deliver six "transformations... by 2025 and beyond". However, the strategy did not set out how much progress would be required to deliver the transformations and – although ministers said their ambition was to have “the most effective border in the world by 2025" – it did not contain a clear timetable for delivery.

The NAO report warns that the government will need to overcome “significant implementation challenges” to deliver the different elements of the strategy, including effectively managing interdependencies between programmes and  overcoming legislative barriers to sharing data. 

“Without strong mechanisms to report on delivery and to hold departments to account for these, and in the face of competing priorities for resources, there is a significant risk that delivery of the underlying programmes will fall well into the future,” it adds.

The programmes making up the strategy are set to cost £4.7bn, the NAO found. The Cabinet Office has told the NAO that its ambitions for the strategy remain the same as when it was published but that taking forward each element beyond the current spending review period “will be dependent on prioritisation decisions in the context of resource constraints”. Departments are still awaiting spending plans beyond the current financial year as the government has delayed its next spending review until after the upcoming general election, which must take place by January. Most departments are also facing significant real-terms cuts to their spending plans. 

The NAO warns that, “without a clear delivery pathway and strong cross-government delivery mechanisms to hold departments to account, and given the many interdependencies between elements of the strategy, there is a significant risk that departments will find it harder to overcome implementation challenges, and that delivery stalls”.

“This raises the risk that costs to traders and government will increase, and opportunities will not be realised,” it adds.

The six programmes that make up the strategy are being led by individual lead departments and co-ordinated through a cross-government Border Design Authority, chaired by the Cabinet Office. But there is no cross-government integrated delivery plan for the strategy, according to the NAO, with the programmes not being delivered as a portfolio.

“In theory, progress on the strategy would be reported to the cross-government Border Delivery and Performance Group,” the report says. “However, to date this group has focused on the more immediate operational priorities associated with the delivery of the Border Target Operating Model.”

The NAO said the government’s approach to implementing the strategy “contrasts with its previous approach to managing the border in the context of the UK’s exit from the European Union, where a central DG-led group had oversight of cross-government activity and reported regularly to senior officials and ministers”. The Cabinet Office told the NAO that the previous arrangements had been “exceptional and would be inappropriate for the current circumstances”. 

The report says the Cabinet Office is currently undertaking a review looking at the progress made in delivering the strategy and at whether there should be any change in “future priorities and timescales for delivery". 

It asks the Cabinet Office to work with other departments following the next spending review to confirm the government’s plans for taking forward the different elements of the border strategy, including clarifying the arrangements to “effectively coordinate, monitor and report on these across government”.

The report also picks out issues with some of the key individual elements of the strategy.

It warns that the HMRC Single Trade Window programme contains objectives and timescales that are "overly optimistic and continue to under-estimate the complexity of what is required" and says the programme has already fallen "several months" behind schedule. The report points out the financial impact of delays: the programme's latest business case, published in March, estimated that a 12-month delay could reduce the programme's benefits by £866m over 10 years.

It also finds that the Home Office is struggling with the delivery of a new IT systems. It says the department "considers that the programme will be challenging to deliver because of its overall complexity".

The report also finds concerns among senior officials in the Northern Ireland Civil Service about its ability to carry out the new responsibiltiies it has acquired as a result of Brexit. It says senior NICS civil servants "highlighted challenges around the capacity and skills required to enact new responsibilities",

The Cabinet Office told the watchdog that "specific responsibilities were still being discussed which would inform capacity requirements, but that it was aware of the need for clarity regarding roles and that it would work with the NICS to pursue joint objectives".

A government spokesperson said: "Our borders strategy introduces essential, risk-based checks to protect the UK from potentially devastating pests and diseases – and we are making good progress, having successfully rolled out new checks in January and April this year while taking a pragmatic approach which minimises 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.”

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