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Cargo firms say Customs computer is 'not reliable'

CUSTOMS and Excise is about to 'go live' on an pounds 82m computer which many of those who have to use it claim will not work properly.

The project is over-budget by pounds 12m, has been repeatedly postponed and, many users fear, is in danger of causing serious disruption to the flow of trade. There are also fears that it could end up being a disaster on a larger scale than Taurus, a computer system at the London Stock Exchange, which was shelved last year, wasting pounds 70m.

The National Audit Office planned a full value-for-money report into the system in March 1992, according to documents, but chose not to do so. A spokeswoman said there were no plans for such a report but that the NAO, in the course of its routine annual audit, was monitoring the project.

Six hundred air cargo companies who will be using the system, Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (Chief) - which pools information on all imports and exports - have asked Customs to delay its implementation. Its proposed launch date is 1 March. During a major test last month, 150 users had to abandon the trial after failing to establish a link with the main computers. Others complained of more than 1,000 errors. The software is so faulty that Customs concedes it may not be able to deal with decimal points accurately.

Agency Sector Management, which represents air freight firms, claims Chief is neither stable nor reliable enough to go live. One ASM director claimed Customs was acting to implement the system only for commercial reasons, describing the decision as 'utter madness'.

However, documents leaked to the trade magazine Computer Weekly show that Customs has warned end-users that unless the system, which has been designed by British Telecom, goes ahead, they will be asked to contribute to the costs of its postponement, which could run at pounds 1.7m per month.

Customs said most of the users were happy with its performance and ready to go live. A spokeswoman said the air freight community's complaints had been registered and contingency plans had been made to cover for mistakes.