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The Great Border Agency IT Crash: Just who was responsible?

Stand by for more trouble at Lunar House, say insiders

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IT biz Atos caused last month's disastrous Border Agency computer meltdown that caused chaos for foreigners resident in the UK, according to the agency's chief. And well-placed sources have told The Register they expect similar problems in future.

Atos's service has been described by insiders with knowledge of the matter as "not fit for purpose" and the issue has been compounded by complicated Home Office procurement that has left the Agency's IT a dog's dinner of various providers and contracts.

The great database freeze-up at the Border Agency's Lunar House in Croydon on 3 May left people seeking residence permits facing delays of several weeks for new appointments that were in some cases on the other side of the country, causing disruption to their employers and preventing them from leaving the country.

At the time, the Border Agency refused to tell us what had gone wrong, but Rob Whiteman, Chief Executive of the Border Agency coughed up the name of the IT company during a grilling by the Home Office Select Committee following the incident.

Q151 Chair: So, from a bit of praise to a tiny bit of criticism-I am sorry to tell you-over the issue of your computer system that crashed at Lunar house. Hundreds of people were turned away, and we hear that some were in tears at the fact that the system did not work. What went wrong? Have we got compensation from the IT company? Will it happen again, and have we rearranged all the appointments?

Rob Whiteman: We contacted people over the bank holiday weekend and rearranged appointments. Around 500 appointments that were cancelled were rearranged. The issues around IT are incredibly frustrating for my staff, as well as for our customers. When I meet staff, it is a constant frustration that systems do not work all the time and that some of the resilience issues do not conform to common standards. In terms of morale and other issues, it is absolutely vital that we get to the heart of these IT problems. They are complex, yes, but-

Q152 Chair: Yes, but we do not want to go into that now. Do we know why it broke down?

Rob Whiteman: We do know why it broke down. It was an error on the network that affected the way appointments were queued from the system, and therefore they could not travel properly around the network. It was an IT failure, but, to answer your question, I have discussed this several times with the Chief Executive of the IT company that is the primary IT provider.

Q153 Chair: What is the company?

Rob Whiteman: I would rather not say.

Q154 Chair: I am sorry, Mr Whiteman; this is a Select Committee of the House-

Rob Whiteman: It is Atos

Two separate sources familiar with the affair have also confirmed to the Reg that of the five major companies servicing the UK Border Agency IT contract it is Atos, credited with systems integration and managing applications, that was responsible for the issue on 3 May.

Atos has a £100 million contract with the Home Office to provide IT services across the UK Border Agency and the Home Office, a six-year deal ending in 2016.

Whiteman told the MPs that the system-crashing flaw came from the UK Border Agency's appointment booking service.

The problem was fleshed out by one of our sources, who explained how a complicated system at the UKBA is running close to capacity, and has no contingency plans for when things go wrong.

The appointment process uses several different applications and is handled by Atos. There are four different components: Q-matic runs the online booking system, an Apply Online system handles the submission of forms and processes payments, a third contractor runs a check against the Case Information Database (CID) to verify case history, and a fourth processes biometric data on the passports.

Atos acts as the overall integrator for the four different elements, adding a middle layer before the data gets to the UK Border Agency. The complicated system is vulnerable to glitches.

"It's a mess," an insider told us. "It's a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth."

Our source said:

If you are on the phone to customers, its embarrassing because we can't give them an estimated fix time for when the systems will be back up. You have these highly skilled individuals who work in IT asking if there's a repair time - and we don't have a repair time.

There's no contingency plan in place. When it goes wrong we just sit there and do nothing.

Responding to the above criticisms, Atos told us:

There was an isolated technical issue in early May. All services are now restored and operating normally. Atos has a robust contingency plan in place and immediately fully mobilised its team to work closely with the UKBA to resolve the issue.

The firm declined to give further detail about the nature of the fault.

Atos came under criticism recently for its handling of disability benefits cuts, though the company continues to win big UK contracts: it signed a 5 year £75 million deal with the NHS in January to provide an integrated IT desktop service. The firm has also just been awarded a £140 million deal for IT provision at the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

Back at the Border Agency, there has been a series of problems recently, with £9.1 million iris recognition tech slated as a costly mistake and more recently, staff cuts and industrial action that have led to queues of up to 3 hours at Heathrow.

Asked for comment on the Lunar House incident, the Border Agency told The Reg:

“We acted quickly resolve an IT issue in early May which affected some visa applicants - all of whom were offered alternative appointments.

"As a matter of course whenever IT issues occur we will work with our suppliers to ensure our contingency plans remain robust." ®

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