E-borders fiasco highlights the need for expert scrutiny

Features editor

The fiasco over the cancellation of the contract with Raytheon to deliver the UK’s e-borders system could have been avoided if more engineers were involved in decision making.

The government has been ordered to pay £220m to Raytheon after a tribunal found that the cancelling of the contract for the US-based defence contractor to supply the technology for the e-borders programme was illegal. As overseas-based companies are frequently contracted to supply complex systems to the UK, this raises important questions which must be answered to avoid this costly outcome re-occurring.

The UK Border Agency was in charge of specifying the e-borders contract

E-borders was intended to assist the police in detecting criminals entering or leaving the country by checking their details against immigration, police and security checklists. It was ordered in 2007 by the Labour government, with the £742m contract awarded to the Trusted Borders consortium, led by Raytheon and including Accenture and Qinetiq. Almost £200m of this sum had already been paid by 2010, when the contract was scrapped by the incoming coalition government around six weeks after the General Election.

The reason given for the cancellation was that the consortium was a year behind schedule in delivering key parts of the system, which was supposed to be fully operational by March 2014. Raytheon argues that it had delivered ‘significant capabilities’; Home Secretary Theresa May says that the situation when the coalition took over the reins of government was ‘a mess with no attractive options’, and Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, claims that the UK Borders Agency didn’t know what it wanted from e-borders when it was set up.

’If anything is clear from this event, it’s that something went very badly wrong somewhere

A revised version of e-borders is still being constructed, with IBM as lead contractor, and the system for checking details on arriving passengers in advance is partially in place. However, if anything is clear from this event, it’s that something went very badly wrong somewhere; the taxpayer ending up having to foot a bill of almost a quarter of a billion pounds when we’re told that public finances are still perilously tight isn’t an outcome that anybody could have wanted.

It seems pretty strange that the coalition should take the decision to cancel such a complex contract so soon after taking charge; clearly, as the cancellation has now been ruled illegal, they didn’t scrutinise the contract clearly enough or measure the consortium’s progress against benchmarks properly (and Vaz alleges that his committee hasn’t been able to ascertain what the benchmarks were). As such, we can’t even say whether it’s correct that Raytheon was late in delivering the system.

Could this be a case where better advice from engineers could have helped? E-borders is clearly a multifaceted system involving several pieces of advanced technology including electronic gates at entry points, and government is notorious for not having qualified engineers on hand to advise on these.  Scientific advisers in the Home Office, with a wide spread of subjects to cover, might not have been equipped to advise on the drawing-up of the contract; and we all know that MPs with engineering expertise are thin on the ground.

As digital systems become ever more ubiquitous in all areas of our lives, it seems that we need a better approach to specifying them. Massive, multifunctional systems are obviously problematic, as similar failures in the NHS and the BBC have shown; maybe they should be separated out into more manageable modules to build up functionality gradually. And contracts need to be more transparent and scrutinised more carefully, with each part explained clearly by the organisation in charge of specifying the system. If the Border Agency didn’t know what it wanted, this should have been picked up before public money was committed.