Defra, responsible for overseeing £17 billion in annual chemical exports, has “not ensured that the new IT systems it is developing can meet future operational capability”
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has not defined its future service requirements and the department will not be able to guarantee critical operations will work in the result of a no-deal Brexit.
This is according to a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) this week that found: “Defra has not yet ensured that the new IT systems it is developing can meet future operational capability, as specified in its outline business cases.”
The issue is compounded further still as the department has not fully outlined or defined exactly what its future service requirements will be.
Instead the report claimed that Defra is: “Focusing on ensuring that a functioning system is in place for a potential exit without a deal in March 2019.”
Defra IT Systems
As part of its considerable portfolio Defra is responsible for the regulation of chemicals in the UK. However, the import, supply, manufacturing and use of chemicals is currently regulated by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).
This EU agency is equipped with a robust administration and IT system, one which as an EU member state the UK can access. Yet in the event of a no-deal scenario the UK would no longer have access to these systems.
As such the UK plans to build its own administrative regime and IT systems: “However, the full operational costs have not yet been firmly established and full business cases have yet to be submitted to HM Treasury,” the report notes.
The UK exported £17 billion in chemicals and chemical products into the EU in 2017, this amounts to 60 percent of its total chemical exports.
The UK plans to work with the ECHA so it can continue to register and sell chemical products into the European market.
However, this is all heavily reliant on a deal being negotiated with the EU, without which: “UK chemical manufacturers would no longer be able to export their products to EU member states because registrations of products with the EU would cease to be recognised by the EU,” the report added.
In an emailed statement to Computer Business Review a spokesperson from Defra refuted the claims, saying with regards to chemical regulatory IT systems they are: “Using an agile approach to IT development that enables us to develop and build systems in stages as future requirements become clearer, providing flexibility and value for money to the taxpayer.”
They noted that in a no deal scenario the HSE: “Will act as the lead UK regulatory authority, working with the Environment Agency, building on its existing work in this area.”
Yet the spokesperson revealed that this is another area in which they still do not have a full understanding of the cost or requirements involved as they state: “Work is ongoing to fully assess the resource requirements to undertake this function.”
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MP Meg Hillier the Committee Chair of the Public Accounts Committee commented: “We are rapidly running out of time for Defra and other departments to finish planning and deliver completely new services and functions, and a huge volume of legislation.”
“The government needs to be honest with the public about its progress in delivering key elements of Brexit and must be upfront about what won’t be ready in time,” she noted.
The report also discusses the UK’s importation and exportation of animals’ and the record keeping systems involved in this activity, another Defra portfolio.
The current system in place is run by the EU’s TRACES (trade control and export system) which helps to notify border inspection posts that carry out controls on commodities being imported to the UK.
NAO notes that: “Without this facility, the border inspection posts will need to enter data manually into their databases. It is likely that manual data entry would lead to higher error rates, which in turn could lead to delays at the border while manual checks are carried out and an increased bio-security risk when errors are not detected.”
A Defra spokesperson told Computer Business Review that: “Significant progress has now been made in developing the IT system and we are now expecting only minor manual workarounds.”
“Part of our comprehensive contingency plans include the use of manual systems alongside existing IT systems as a last resort. This is sensible planning for all outcomes.”
With regards to the report in its entirety the spokesperson commented that: “Since the report was written, we have continued to reprioritise our resources, expanded our workforce and made further progress on our extensive programme of work focused on preparing for a range of Brexit scenarios.”