Dutch ambassador flabbergasted by antique ICT used by HM Customs during Brexit

A recent interview with the Dutch ambassador in London shows precisely why the Dutch, usually a sober, very anglophile people, watch the London political scene(s) with horror, astonishment, and deep pity for the ordinary people who end up holding the bag of Brexit. Rich public schoolboys like Rees-Mogg and Boris won’t suffer from their overseas investments (NOT in Britain!), but neither do they seem to really care about the millions of people in rust belt and abandoned regions of the UK who voted for Brexit as a desperate cry for help, more than out of national pride, or Johnsons ideological hatred of Brussels. The action group “Led by donkeys” (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jan/16/billboard-campaign-reminds-voters-of-mps-brexit-promises ) with its Twitter-poster campaign confirms the worst fears of Dutch Brexit watchers of who is leading the Brexit charge of the light brigade, with scant facts supporting their empty, false promises up to this day.

In an  interview in the national newspaper Algemeen Dagblad (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algemeen_Dagblad ), of Monday 4th of February,  the Dutch ambassador in London, Mr Simon Smits, told about the voyage aboard a Dutch freight truck from Schiphol (Amsterdam) airport to Heathrow, and a working visit to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), he’d recently made to see for himself how prepared Dutch and British truckers, their customs, authorities and others involved in keeping transport rolling are in these Brexit times (see: https://www.ad.nl/politiek/onze-enige-zekerheid-is-onzekerheid~affc3a40/ ). Today, with Britain in the EU, the trip went as smoothly as could be expected, but ambassador Smits was flabbergasted that HMRC still runs the MS-DOS software in its computers. The only advantage ambassador Smits could see was that present-day hackers would be flummoxed by this antediluvian software from the 1980s/’90s, but this badly needs an update before Brexit is upon us. As I remember it, you need to insert first a start-up floppy disc, then a “system” floppy, and finally the “text” floppy in a computer to work that system; very time consuming with thousands of trucks, containers or passengers awaiting handling. Moreover, if it breaks down the recovery takes more time too. It reminded me of the outcry when the newest British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elisabeth was shown to run the somewhat more recent Windows XP software (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/27/hms-queen-elizabeth-running-outdated-windows-xp-software-raising/ ). A centuries-old trading nation running this outdated, vulnerable software in a strategic border (and state income) service in the 21st century… unbelievable.

A direct result of the environment created by the Brexit referendum campaign, the self-serving “unicorn thinking” behind many of the British Brexit treaty proposals (which get rejected by Brussels), and the uncertainty by no decision passing the Commons, is also shown in another remarkable development: the ambassador is holding regular collective ceremonies with dozens of children and spouses of Dutch people living in the UK, giving them Dutch and thus EU citizenship to be able to continue living and working in Britain and with the EU as they do now. That is an absolute first in Dutch/British relations which have existed from the Dark Ages and Charlemagne. The consular department at his embassy (the biggest in any Duch embassy anywhere) is dealing daily with endless nervous enquiries from Dutch and Dutch-related inhabitants and entrepreneurs in the UK (and the Netherlands) about what their position and their possibilities and rights will be after any form of Brexit.

Moreover, even more remarkable: wherever the ambassador visits a function or also walks the London or British streets (and people recognise him as the ambassador), he gets accosted by British people excusing themselves for the shambles Britain is making of Brexit, and/or for the whole foolhardy enterprise of exiting at all. That is a first in our relations as well.

* Bernard Aris is a Dutch historian (university of Leiden), and Documentation assistant to the D66 parliamentary Party. He is a member of the Brussels/EU branch of the LibDems.

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32 Comments

  • Nonsense Bernard we have the finest abacus in the world. As soon as Lord Wee Mogg has repealed the child labour laws and reopened the South Wales mines, his might coal fired gun boats will sail the seven seas. Where will you Lilly livered Dutch people be then. Our squadrons of faries under Tinkerbell will rain down fire across the continent, our troops of unicorn Hussars will bring back gold and cheese, I know it to be so a Brexiteer wrote it on the side of a bus.

  • Simon McGrath 6th Feb '19 - 8:27am
  • John Marriott 6th Feb '19 - 9:16am

    A few years ago on a Council visit to RAF Waddington, I was surprised to see that the computers on board the AWACS early warning aircraft were still using reel to reel tapes. I wonder whether that has changed. The aircraft themselves were based on the airframe of the Boeing 707, which originated in the 1950s. Mind you the sort of computers used to get a man on the moon back in 1969 probably had less computing power than your average iPhone.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 6th Feb '19 - 9:31am

    To be fair, Windows XP is still the best operating system Microsoft have come out with.

  • John Marriot
    Aircraft design has not changed much externally because it’s based on the science of aerodynamics. If you look at modern airliners they all look very similar to the 707. The changes are mostly about better fuel efficiency, safety, carrying capability, engine durability and the materials used in construction. The basic shape is near identical because that is what extensive wind tunnel testing dictates is the most efficient and most cost effective shape for the job of carrying people from A to B . The same is true of lots of technology. For example, modern automatic pistols look very similar to the Colt 45 of 1911, but the construction is different. Obviously, increased use of pilotless flight may alter some of aspects of external aircraft design. The point being that the design of airliners is based practicality rather than aesthetic modernism.
    How long ago is a few years? Avionics change all the time which is one of the reasons new aircraft can take a very long time to enter service.

  • Ok David RAW, of topic your comment but as you started it; Mad Cow decease started in Great Britain. I rest my case.

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Feb '19 - 10:46am

    Glenn – Boeing 707s did not use fly-by-wire technology. Modern commercial passenger jets do use it – and have appropriate software.

    If you are implying that HMRC software does not need to have changed much since the year dot – I would suggest that since our tax systems have become much more complex over time, with many more exceptions (loopholes etc.) – and hence much more scope for errors, the HMRC core software must require a good deal of updating. If they really are using such antiquated software (and hardware) then I’m struggling to see how/where they would find IT people nowadays with the relevant expertise to maintain and further develope the software.

    Perhaps this is why our tax systems are such a shambles (from the viewpoint of taxpayers anyway).

  • Richard Underhill 6th Feb '19 - 10:58am

    Greetings from the country which speaks the best English (and French and German and … Dutch).
    Please spell our Queen’s name with a z (same as her mother).
    Obviously the best abacus is a soroban (made in Japan). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soroban.
    Please do not investigate the computer systems used by our main banks.
    You might cause a run on the banks and the pound (worse than we saw in Mary Poppins at Christmas).

  • Richard Underhill 6th Feb '19 - 11:01am

    Glenn 6th Feb ’19 – 10:09am
    Do you not watch the James Bond films?
    A modern pistol depends on the fingerprint of the owner, otherwise it will not fire.
    A British invention of course.

  • Noncomformistradical
    It was a reply to John Marriott’s comment about aircraft design. I explicitly said avionics change all the time, which obviously includes fly by wire. . I never said anything at all about HMRC and was implying nothing about HMRC. Of course it needs to be updated.
    Read what I wrote again. Then tell me where I mentioned HMRC .

  • Richard Underhill
    No I don’t watch James Bond films. I’m more of a rom com, musical and Horror fan movie wise. It was a offhand comment about external appearances and why things look the way they do.

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Feb '19 - 11:45am

    @Glenn – this thread is about HMRC and its antiquated systems.

  • Laurence Cox 6th Feb '19 - 11:54am

    @John Marriott

    The Nimrod MRA4 aircraft that the Coalition Government scrapped before they could be brought into service were based on the Comet 4 airframe, but that doesn’t mean that any of them contained structural parts that were originally on the Comet 4. We always used to joke that the only thing left from the original airframe was the nameplate with the serial number on it. That is typical of military aircraft, they are like the broom that has had three new handles and four new heads and is identifiable as the same broom but has no part in common with what was originally made.

    Incidentally, I’m not surprised by the continued use of reel-to-reel tapes. Hard drives are much more sensitive to vibration and if you don’t need random access they offer no advantage.

  • Nonconformistradical
    I was replying to a comment John Marriott made about the 707s airframe. Sometimes things go off topic. I addressed my views on the HRMC computer issue in my reply to you. I agree the HRMC system needs updating. Is it really that difficult to be polite or say sorry I misinterpreted what you were saying?

  • Bernard Aris 6th Feb '19 - 1:11pm

    @Simon MacGrath
    I’m a member of the Defence Policy advisory commission of our D66 MP’s, in which active serving officers of the Dutch Navy are participating. A week or so after the Royal Navy made worldwide headlines with the Windows XP thing, I asked them at a commission meeting if that story was really true, and they confirmed it. And although I follow British news assiduously, I never came across any item contradicting it, or saying that the Windows ICT had been replaced (but that often happens when something sounding spectacular turns out not to be true; and things going right don’t get media coverage either).

  • Bernard Aris 6th Feb '19 - 1:20pm

    @David Raw
    Pleased? I’m upset (and the ambassador will have been too) because ICT problems at Customs in a humongous trading partner like the UK directly and daily hurts multiple Dutch exports, and the substantial Dutch trucking, ferrying and railway transport industries:
    *) The flowers for literally every flower stall all over metropolitan London only have Dutch flowers and plants;
    *) Dutch fruits, veg, and fresh cream (dairy) are in every British supermarket I ever visited in 30 years of frequent British visits;
    *) the nuclear isotopes from our Petten nuclear facility which according to Wikipedia
    (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petten_nuclear_reactor ) “the nuclear facilities at Petten supply 60% of the European demand for medical isotopes”, and Petten developed a neutron beam technology especially useful for treating brain tumors. Petten is one of only three nuclear plants in the world producing isotopes, which must be used within hours (I think their maximum storage time is a day) of production, so Custom hiccups leads to live-or-death problems at NHS hospitals.

    And following on on Coen: Dutch cows with their emblematic white skins with Rorschach-like black or brown spots are used by most British Dairy farmers, so BSE directly threatened the mainstay of our substantial dairy farming and producing sector. Dutch media regularly report on cases like your poultry & eggs one; the Dutch veterinary Inspection is training colleagues from other (EU or EFTA) countries, and reacts instantly and powerfully at every epidemic or wrongdoing. A Dutch European Commissioner build up the CAP, so we’re extremely watchfull and sensitive on those kinds of wrongdoings and epidemics.

    Almost every village and market town around Rotterdam and The Hague has tens of international Trucking firms; Dutch (and Flemish) overland transeuropean freight haulage is a centutries-old sector, it’s as much part of our identity as the merchant navy. So if primitive customs ICT structurally hinders their journeys, that hits the Dutch in another emblematic sector. That upsets Dutch truckers and ambassadors…

  • Bernard Aris 6th Feb '19 - 2:14pm

    @David Raw

    Yes but 30 years of watching big Dutch government ICT projects get off the ground, or not (we’ve had a parliamentary enquiry about mishaps and spectacular faillures with those just 5 years ago; parliamentary enquiries are the biggest controling weapon in our arsenal and usually last months if not years and produce voluminous reports) has taught me and many poiticians, journalists and hitorians:
    *) “seeing is believing”; the proof of the pudding…

    Waryness abounds on our side of the channel about those big ICT projects.

    The Duch Customs , harbours and airports ICT, orgnaization, staffing and training levels were meticulously inspected, tested, and reviewed right after the Brexit referendum result was known; and the Dutch have the distinct impression that Brexit preparations with British authorities were often later, small-bore, and more superficial than ours.

    The whole or Rotterdam harbour (and everybody working there, concerned) has gone through a big three day during trial run in autumn 2018 to see if we could manage Brexit logistic problems; and if Brexit problems would hinder other sectors of our ex- & imports industry there; I didn’t hear anything about such trials (with every authority, company, expert etcetera fully involved) on the British side of the Channel or North Sea.

    And the Dutch ambassador surely will have been aware of the new Britsh Customs ICT coming online; but the same pragmatic waryness will have withheld him from mentioning it.

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 6th Feb '19 - 5:29pm

    @Frankie like your comment – but you forget we will export pigs that will fly too.

  • but ambassador Smits was flabbergasted that HMRC still runs the MS-DOS software in its computers.
    It would be interesting to be able to see what ambassador Smits saw and was told by way of explanation, as I suspect something has been lost in translation.

    However, I recommend that he probably should avoid visiting the still operational Borssele Nuclear Power Station and asking about their computer systems… Some Canadian reactors are reputedly still relying on software and systems that predate MS-DOS.

  • Tahir,
    Why would we let our flying porkines fly outside the UK, they will be reserved for our brave Brexiteers. They are a massive step forward on your standard pig, they fly themselves directly to your local butchers; fresh meat is a requirement for our heroic people. The EU rabble will have to make do with Danish/Dutch bacon, gammon and pork, tis all they deserve.

  • I see there is much nashing of teeth and more than a few dentures over Mr Tusks jib about the Brexiteer leadership. The point you should take into account my brave Brexiteers is people are not even pretending to be nice any more. The EU certainly ain’t, the Japanese companies no longer pretend their leaving is not due to Brexit. We have reached a point when the stupidity of your leadership, is taken for granted and “nice” people can laugh at them. Welcome to clown school, to be forever painted as such is not a fate I’d be happy signing up too, but that is effectively what you have done. Bless.

  • Mark Seaman 6th Feb '19 - 11:46pm

    Why on earth does the site admin allow the continued insults and puerile taunts from ‘Frankie’ ? Their behaviour is so clearly in breach of the site rules that they should have been sent packing quite some time ago.

  • Peter Watson 7th Feb '19 - 10:56am

    @Mark Seaman “Why on earth does the site admin allow the continued insults and puerile taunts from ‘Frankie’ ?”
    I believe that Frankie has previously stated that his posts criticising the Coalition were frequently blocked. so I assume that it is not so much about the site rules or the tone of his comments but instead it is about whether or not they toe the LDV line.

  • Peter Watson 7th Feb '19 - 11:14am

    Back on topic, a couple of points occur to me:
    1. Whatever shortcomings there are in UK IT policy and implementation, this has all arisen while we were members of the EU so highlighting it in the context of Brexit risks offering ammunition to those who want to leave the EU.
    2. Articles and comments that appear to demean the UK also risk being used against the Remain campaign and the Lib Dems by being cited as evidence of anti-patriotism, etc.
    The campaign to remain in the EU has been appallingly led from the start (I wholeheartedly agree with Donald Tusk’s observation that “there is no political force and no effective leadership for Remain”) and it learnt little if anything from the outcome of the referendum, but all too often its supporters seem to undermine it further.

  • Phil Beesley 7th Feb '19 - 11:38am

    As an IT professional, I’m reluctant to make judgements based on an over-the-shoulder observation. I wouldn’t try to guess what a text-based data entry terminal was connected to or whether the back-end was appropriate. I’d have to look hard to determine if a text screen was based on MS-DOS or an IBM 3270 emulator, for which there is a healthy commercial market. I daresay that a port and customs authority still uses some ruggedised handheld devices for staff working outdoors that look like they are from the digital stone age. They’ll be connected to the same systems accessible by web and phone apps.

    Changing complex systems is hard. It’s easier to change a “free” webmail service (lower customer expectation) than for Microsoft to update Outlook/Office 365 with paying customers. The trade press used to report on success/failure of major projects until the stories became too familiar. Big IT projects at public sector and private organisations have a low success rate. One third fully or largely succeed; one third partially succeed or provide something useful; one third are cancelled or fail.

    Changing is hard. Change is not always visible. Some IT systems are rubbish directed by lousy managers. Other rubbish IT systems are managed by competent and diligent people trying to clear up somebody else’s mess. It takes a while to spot who is who. I certainly wouldn’t point fingers until I was fully informed.

    Are government IT systems good enough for a post-Brexit world? I don’t know whether anyone knows. I’d be just as concerned whether the systems were five years old than twenty years old.

  • Not really different from Japanese offices using facsimile. But this sounds like we can include a pledge to “review and modernize public service ICT system”.

    Just remember the old days, during the early 20th century, when all other countries especially the US adopted telephone on a large scale, while Britain still used telegraph lol.

  • I mean, the telephone vs telegraph really fits into Corelli Barnett’s narrative of British industrial and technological decline. Oh, just think about Corelli Barnett, I strongly believe that reading some of his works about British decline can give the Liberal Democrats very different ideas and perspectives about the root causes of the country’s problem, and this can pave way to radical policies.

  • CHIEF (Customs Handling of Import & Export Freight) is written in COBOL and runs on Fujitsu’s VME operating system. CHIEF was introduced in 1994 and is currently being replaced by a new system, CDS (Customs Declaration Service), which uses modern web technology. CHIEF is being retained as a backup until 2020.

    ‘VME Applications and Solutions’:
    https://www.fujitsu.com/uk/services/application-services/application-development-integration/vme/

    VME is the workhorse behind the UK Government’s revenues and benefits systems – supporting over 150,000 staff online and handling over a billion transactions each year.
    Many other customers in the UK and around the world continue to rely on VME. Whether in the Government, Private or Public sector, VME provides a consistently reliable platform to support mission-critical business applications.

    ‘HMRC customs platform ready for no-deal Brexit, NAO report finds’:
    https://publictechnology.net/articles/news/hmrc-customs-platform-ready-no-deal-brexit-nao-report-finds

    A National Audit Office progress report on HMRC’s new Customs Declaration Service (CDS), which is being developed to replace is existing Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) system, found HMRC had mitigated some of the risks identified in its last report in July 2017.
    [….]

    Responding to the report, an HMRC spokeswoman said the department remained on track to deliver the CDS by January 2019 and was building it to manage any potential increase in customs declarations following the UK’s exit from the EU.

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