Letter: Customs' computer robust and ready

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Sir: Your articles (10 and 12 February) about our new import and export processing system, Chief, offer a gloomy and unjustified prospect of a major computer disaster about to happen.

Chief has not 'cost pounds 82 million': to get anywhere near that figure you would need to include the operating charges for the remaining eight years of the system's contracted life. Stage 1 of Chief, a management information system, has been live since 1990 and has already helped us to recover more than pounds 30m in additional revenue, which is more than the development cost of the 1989 contract. Stage 2, Exports, has been live since 1992.

Some changes to the original contract have been agreed upon, but the project is not, as you allege, pounds 12m over budget. The National Audit Office did indeed consider doing a full value-for-money examination of the project management of Chief early last year. But in the light of a preliminary study, it concluded that the fixed- price contract gave good value for money and that Customs' project management was satisfactory. It did not, therefore, carry out a full study of the project. No 'political pressure' was exerted.

The third and final stage of Chief, Imports, has been delayed several times because neither Chief nor the trade systems it links with were ready.

It is true that during the rigorous testing of Chief and the linked systems over the past 10 months, we and trade users have found - and fixed - many faults. That is the very purpose of planned testing. Chief is not yet perfect, but last month we took the view that it was sufficiently robust to go live. This view is not yet shared by the airport trade community - particularly the freight agents, whose own project has been subject to a series of delays and who tend to blame Chief for all their problems.

It is irresponsible for the agents' trade body, BIFA, to call for Chief to be 'killed off'. Customs, trade system operators and users have all invested heavily in planning and testing these new systems. The media vultures may be circling, but we believe they will go hungry.

Yours faithfully,


Director, Customs

Board of Customs and Excise

London, SE1