An MPs’ committee has warned that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) needs to act quickly in ensuring key IT systems are ready for use when the UK leaves the EU.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has published a report highlighting the uncertainty about what will face the department at the end of March next year, including worries about the state of IT systems to take over from those provided by the EU.
While the warnings may prove to be academic if the Government’s draft agreement with the EU comes into force, they add to anxieties over the consequences if the UK leaves without a deal.
One of the key features of the report follows an earlier warning from the National Audit Office that Defra has not yet ensured the systems can meet the future operational capability outlined in its business cases for chemical regulations and import controls on animal products.
The PAC report says six IT systems are being developed, highlighting the new import notification system, saying Defra still has “an enormous task” to complete the work on making it ready.
While it is planning to begin tests in January, the report says it will inevitably throw up new issues and place increasing strain on the likelihood of it working in time.
“The department is planning to test a number of its systems simultaneously in the new year, so there is a risk that a high volume of issues will arise that it will have little time to address,” the report says.
It adds that Defra has conceded it might have to use manual workarounds, but that it has been pragmatic in prioritising the essential functions.
The committee says the department should provide it with an update on progress by the end of December 2018, then again in January.
The report examines a series of issues relating to Defra’s capability in responding to Brexit, saying there is a high level of risk in its portfolio, with many plans dependent on co-operation from other departments, the devolved administrations and agencies and the goodwill of EU member states. It claims that Defra has been too complacent about the levels of disruption or interruption to trade that may be faced.
Committee chair Meg Hillier (pictured) referred to the issue of the IT systems and said: “In the continued uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, Defra’s civil servants must prepare for multiple and in some cases ill-defined scenarios.
“Anyone working in the dark is prone to stumble but in Defra’s case I am concerned that the department has lost sight of its priorities. The risks associated with ‘no-deal’ in particular are severe, and it is alarming how little specific information Defra has provided to enable individual businesses and organisations to prepare.”
Last week, the draft Brexit agreement between the EU and UK – which is still be accepted by members states of the former and the UK Parliament – outlined that the UK will continue to have access to most key databases until 2021, with extensions in some cases to as late as 2026.
Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0