A technological solution to the Irish border problem posed by the UK's decision to leave the European Union may not be ready for a decade, a leaked document from the Home Office has revealed.
The department has been searching for technology that would enable it to manage the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – the UK’s only land border with the EU – without checkpoints after Brexit, as an alternative so the so-called Irish backstop included in prime minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.
But such technology would be costly and would likely take until 2030 to develop and deploy, according to a presentation by home secretary Sajid Javid’s policy unit, seen by Sky News.
The document appeared to rule out the possibility of a technological alternative to the backstop being ready for the UK’s departure from the EU, despite the deadline having been extended to 31 October.
The backstop, which means the UK will effectively enter a customs union with the EU after Brexit if no other way to manage the Irish border is agreed, has been one of the main stumbling blocks for May’s deal, which has been voted down repeatedly in parliament.
The document, sent to HM Revenue and Customs and the Treasury, set out a complex system involving blockchain technology, sensors, machine learning and automatic revenue collection, Sky News reported.
The system would require input from 28 government agencies and “a myriad of interconnected existing and planned IT systems”, the presentation said.
It said the system would enable “seamless collection and analysis of the data needed” to monitor people and goods crossing the border, but would be expensive to implement.
"There is currently no budget for either a pilot or the programme itself," it added.
It also warned that such an approach was untested, as "no government worldwide currently controls different customs arrangements with no physical infrastructure at the border", and would require the agreement of the ROI.
The document also raised doubts about the UK government’s ability to deliver such an ambitious IT project.
"It is a big and complex project, with possibly tight deadlines. Government does not have the strongest track record on delivery of large tech projects,” it said.
Several high-profile tech projects have run into lengthy delays and costly overspends in recent years, including the Home Office’s Emergency Services Network overhaul and its programme to digitise DBS checks.
Addressing the combined overspend of nearly £1.5bn on these two projects last month, cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill told a committee of MPs that not all major government projects could be expected to stick to their original timelines.
“Programmes of this complexity sometimes go on and off track. They are subject to events,” he told the committee.
Last year the National Audit Office warned that departments were too often overambitious about what they can achieve on major projects, which risked public money being “wasted on a grand scale”.
A Home Office spokesperson said the department did not comment on leaks.