“Substantial risks, including disruption to the agri-food and chemical industries, if Defra’s IT systems are not ready in time”
A Parliamentary special committee has warned that there are “substantial risks” of disruption to the agricultural, food and chemical industries if IT systems at two key government departments aren’t made readied for a potential hard Brexit.
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for International Trade (DIT) face an “unprecedented challenge” in preparing for Brexit, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) highlighted.
‘”There are substantial risks, including disruption to the agri-food and chemical industries, if Defra’s IT systems are not ready in time,” PAC said in a report published today (May 4). It came as Defra targets £138 million spending cuts this year.
In oral evidence to the committee, permanent secretary to Defra, Clare Moriarty, admitted that the challenge “is huge and it keeps me awake at night”. (Committee member MP Caroline Flint later quipped: “We see a lot of male permanent secretaries with knighthoods. Maybe you need a damehood, Ms Moriarty, at the end of all this.”)
Clare Moriarty told PAC in oral evidence that the department had six priority projects: “To replace the TRACES system of import control; the system for chemicals registration to replace the REACH system; the export health certificates system; the pesticides framework; catch certificates, which is a way of accounting for fish caught; and enforcement of control for fisheries”.
The department is responsible for a sprawling host of policy areas, spanning agriculture, air quality, global warming, flooding, fisheries, land and waste management and more.
“Clunky Fixes” and “Manual Workarounds”
Defra officials told the PAC that a “no deal” scenario between the UK and Europe in March 2019 would result in “some manual workarounds” and “clunky fixes”.
Twenty of the department’s 43 “workstreams” have an essential IT component.
With regard to crucial import control and chemical registration IT infrastructure, Defra told PAC that it has “has commenced the build process, and plans are in place for user testing later this year”.
Committee chairman Meg Hillier asked Clare Moriarty: “If it all goes wrong in your Department, it would be, frankly, an unmitigated disaster for the country, wouldn’t it?”
“Defra Doesn’t Fully Understand…”
In written evidence to the committee, Tony Lewis, Head of Policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) noted: “DEFRA does not appear to fully understand the consequences arising from responsibility for food and environmental matters being devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Government.”
He added: “CIEH is particularly concerned as to whether DEFRA and interdependent agencies have enough resource to deliver what they need to ensure that the UK’s transition from the EU is smooth and well-coordinated.”
PAC cited previous failings by Defra to implement the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme, an IT system constructed to deliver payments to farmers under the Common Agriculture Policy.
PAC had delivered a scathing report in 2016 in which they noted that: “The Rural Payments Agency paid only 38% of farmers under the Basic Payment Scheme on 1 December 2015 – the first day of the payment window – compared to over 90% in previous years’’ and that as a result of the collapse of the online application system the Department and to regress back to a ‘paper-assisted digital’ system, requiring a significant amount of manual input and creating a large number of errors.
However PAC felt the need to insistently highlight the complete breakdown of systems they identified, saying: “Dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviour between senior programme officials impacted on implementation and delivery, potentially costing the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds in financial penalties.!
“Neither the government’s Chief Technology Officer nor the Chief Executive of the RPA was able to provide us with an acceptable explanation for their behaviour. The Department’s efforts to resolve issues, such as weekly meetings with the main protagonists, failed, and the Cabinet Office also did not halt the disruptive behaviour. Highly paid public servants need to get the job done and such behaviour is unacceptable.’’