PAC report warns that Defra and DfIT face ‘impossible challenges’ in preparing systems in time for UK withdrawal from EU
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) fears it will have to resort to “manual workarounds” in port IT systems because they will not be ready for Brexit, an MPs’ report reveals today.
It has raised the alarm over potential weaknesses in the control system used by ports to decide whether food is safe to be imported, with a decision needed within weeks.
Similarly, a database to replace that run by the European Chemicals Agency to authorise new chemical products might not be ready – requiring “manual work”.
In evidence to the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Defra’s top civil servants acknowledged the fear of some “clunky fixes” and that some functions would not be performed “as slickly as they are at the moment”.
The PAC’s report, which also covers the Brexit outlook for the Department of International Trade (DfIT), warns of “disruption to the agri-food and chemical industries”, because of the lack of preparedness at the department.
Falling back on manual systems is likely to “impede or at least slow down imports and exports causing severe delays at the border”, it says.
Both Defra and DfIT are facing an “impossible challenge” to get ready for Brexit, because they are “in the dark” about what they need to do, the committee concludes.
Meg Hillier, its chair, called for more information from the Government, saying: “The clock is ticking and there is still no clarity about what Brexit will mean in practice.”
The problems in Defra's databases would arise next year if the Government fails to secure an exit deal, or that deal is rejected by Parliament, and Prime Minister Theresa May carries out her “no deal” exit threat.
The committee demanded an update from Defra by next month, “in case negotiations break down”.
“Given its poor track record on IT delivery, Defra must ensure it has the necessary resources in place to complete its IT programmes on time and avoid costly and embarrassing contingencies involving manual completion and submission of forms,” it says.
Hillier added: “Departments are under extreme pressure. If Parliament is to hold them to account then it is vital that government is as transparent as possible on the progress being made.
“Defra alone has 64 active workstreams, up from 43 at the time we took evidence in March. DfIT, formed in direct response to the EU referendum result, has mission-critical responsibilities. All departments have much to do.”
The report also criticises the Treasury for failing to set out before March how much funding each department would receive in 2018-19 to prepare for Brexit.
It eventually announced that Defra would be allocated £310 million and DfIT £74 million, out of a total pot of £1.6 billion.
Image by McKay Savage, London, CC BY 2.0 through Wikimedia Commons