HM Revenue and Customs has been forced to put back the implementation date for new EU customs clearance rules by three months because a test version of the IT systems needed to handle the change was not ready in time.

The new EU Single Administrative Document harmonisation (SADH) rules have been introduced as a prelude to allowing declaration data to be passed between EU member states’ computer systems.

At present, customs declarations are handled by the Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (Chief) IT system, which is managed for HMRC by BT under a contract that extends to 2010.

The UK’s implementation of SADH, due to take place on 1 July, required substantial changes to Chief to take account of new data elements and codes.

But HMRC sparked anger from the freight industry in February by abandoning plans to run the old and new systems together from March to July – an interval that would have given freight forwarders time to adapt to the new procedures and iron out any software problems.

Freight industry body Agency Sector Management (ASM), which acts as both a representative organisation and software supplier to the trade, warned that the planned overnight switch to the new system on 1 July would cause chaos as staff grappled with unfamiliar customs declarations and largely untested software.

HMRC has now admitted that delays in testing the IT systems forced it to put back implementation of the SADH rules to 1 October.

“The decision was taken to postpone the implementation date of 1 July 2007 as a complete and stable Chief trade test service would not be delivered in time for HMRC and the trade to fully test their interfaces and SADH Chief service capabilities and functionality prior to the planned implementation date,” a spokesperson said.

HMRC has also reverted to the freight industry’s preferred option of running the old and new systems in parallel, until a new cut-off point of 20 January.

The department is also re-tendering the Chief service as extending the current contract with BT beyond 2010 would break EU procurement law.

A new contract – covering the hosting, operation, support, development, management and disaster recovery of the Chief applications, and possibly future software and business process development – will run from 2010 to 2015. At this point Chief is expected to be replaced by an entirely new system under separate contractual arrangements.

Chief’s main applications are its bespoke mainframe-based import and export system and its management support system, a browser-based .NET application providing a variety of reports against an Oracle database.

“HMRC are currently engaged in a competitive dialogue process with bidders,” the spokesperson said. “It is planned that a new contract will be awarded by mid-2008.”

The Port of Dover is among the port authorities that have overhauled their customs clearance messaging systems to meet the SADH rules.