Richard North, 28/07/2020  

There is something rather odd about the way this government thinks. It has just issued a public consultation on its "2025 UK Border Strategy" and, as you might imagine, it wants answers about how the UK's borders should be run.

But here's the odd thing. It's clearly not good enough to have an effective and/or efficient border. No, that's not good enough. In Johnsonian mould, the government wants to deliver "the world's most effective border". It doesn't say why this has to be, or what the cost or other implications might be.

But, in pursuit of this wondrous ambition, the government has identified six of what it calls "draft transformations". These, it believes should be delivered over "the next few years", although it won't be doing this alone.

These will be "in partnership with industry", to deliver the "vision" for the border. And they will require the whole of the government, working with industry, to deliver through multi-year, multi-strand change programmes.

As to those draft transformations, the first, oddly enough, is to remove as much of the border function from the border as possible. The government wants to "increase upstream compliance by moving processes and infrastructure, related to both goods and people, away from the border where appropriate". This will include collecting more revenues remotely.

This, I can understand – and it makes sense. It is also the basis of the EU's Single Market where, for instance, product conformity is ensured at the point of production, rather than at the border. But that requires having dispersed inspectors and control systems, which does not seem to fit with the government's deregulation ethos. I wonder if they have thought this through.

The second "transformation" is to establish resilient "ports of the future" at border crossing points to make the experience smoother and more secure for travellers and traders, while better protecting the public and environment.

This sounds absolutely wonderful, except I haven't the first idea of what it means in practice. Part of this, it seems, is the creation of "a highly digitised and automated border". This, perforce, will "increase productivity and enable swift and secure clearance for legitimate goods and people". But how many billions is the government prepared to invest, to digitise the whole system?

Together with that, our munificent government will protect the UK from security and biosecurity threats and "ensure better infrastructure across the UK that is resilient, multifunctional and facilitates secure and safe interventions".

No doubt, the government is heavily into motherhood and apple pie as well. Who could possibly be against "resilient" and "multifunctional" infrastructure, that "facilitates secure and safe interventions". Hell, I'd be in favour of it if I had the first idea of what it meant.

This also applies to transformation three. In this one, we are to have "a co-ordinated user-centric government approach at the border". This will provide "a smooth, streamlined and secure experience to legitimate traders and travellers, and enables resilient and effective cross-government border administration that works effectively in partnership with industry". What's there not to like?

To get all these goodies, the government will "strengthen cross-government border governance and work closely with industry to design systems and processes".

This, you will all be pleased to know, "will ensure that systems and processes are developed and delivered in a joined-up, user-centric manner across government". And, by that means, all legitimate travellers and traders will enjoy "a positive experience", that will drive value for money for both the taxpayer and users.

But, if you think that's good, wait until you see transformation four. This will bring together the government's collection, assurance and use of border data to provide a "comprehensive and holistic view of data at the border", whilst – of course - ensuring adequate data protection is in place.

And to achieve this remarkable feat, we will see government integrating and unifying how it accesses the data it needs in partnership with industry. The goal, we are told, will be to move to "a single source of truth" for border data across government. Seriously? A "single source of truth"?

With that, though, each relevant department has access to the same data for their needs, which will reduce the number of times traders and travellers need to provide the same information.

According to the government, this will enable reliable, intelligence-led activity and data visibility in real time, while reducing duplicative activity, and will improve security through generating predictability and better analytical-based risk targeting.

It also would seem to suppose, a single, unified database, to which all government departments have access. Assuming that it is actually possible, what price adequate data protection?

But, with all that, we mustn't forget the people. Transformation five will build the capability of staff responsible for delivering border processes and users of the border, particularly in an environment of greater automation.

In this brave new world, government employees will be trained to ensure they have the necessary skills and capabilities to support users of the border and deal with automation, trade and complex security and biosecurity risks.

Furthermore, the government will continue to work with the border industry to ensure that it has the skills and capability to meet the needs of all users "and supports the UK border in becoming the world’s most effective".

And, if all that isn't enough, wait until you see transformation six. Here, it is a case of "tomorrow the world". Not content with turning our own borders into things of wonder, the government plans to "shape the future development of borders worldwide". This, quite obviously, is to promote the UK’s interests, improve security and facilitate end-to-end trade and travel.

To that effect, the government will ensure the UK collaborates with its international partners to shape and showcase the UK’s compliance with international standards and practices. By this means, we will "ensure interoperability of border processes and systems across industry and other countries", all with the aim of promoting integration, strengthening partnerships and harmonising border user journeys.

The odd thing here, though, is that, in terms of international travel and trade, our most important international partners are the EU (EEA) Member States. The government talks glibly of "interoperability", of "promoting integration" and "harmonising".

Yet, this is this same government which is breaking off ties with the EU and developing its own, unique border strategy – presumably all part of taking back control.

Not very long ago, I wrote a piece entitled borders have two sides, pointing out that in order to function effectively, no single country can have total control of the crossing process. The key word, in fact, is "interoperability" and, to make that happen, there has to be a high degree of system harmonisation.

Given that the EU has only just upgraded its Customs Code, with further upgrades very much in progress, I think that we can take it as read that the EU is not going to harmonise its systems with us. Therefore, if we want interoperability, it is pretty obvious that we will have to harmonise with the EU. Yet that, it seems, we have just resolved not to do, preferring instead to develop the "world's most effective border".

And that is precisely what this consultation document says. Our "regained independence and control", it says, "gives the UK the opportunity to shape how our border operates in a way that has not existed for decades".

We will, the document says, no longer be constrained by the EU's controls on its internal market, or the Universal Customs Code. Thus, we will be able to design our border systems and processes in a way which delivers the greatest benefit to the UK and supports the free trade agreements we negotiate.

With that, you might feel that you're not alone in wondering whether we've moved into a parallel universe, or that aliens have taken over the government.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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