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Government must invest in efficient IT to support food trade post-Brexit, say MPs

Inefficient IT and infrastructure at the border could cause perishable foods to spoil, says committee, which calls for the government to ensure the right IT is in place for prompt export and import

Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has called on the government to ensure the right infrastructure and IT systems are in place to avoid delays at the country’s border post-Brexit.

The committee’s report highlighted the risk of perishable food getting spoilt because of “lengthy customs procedures and poor IT systems”.

The UK imports and exports large amounts of food products, and once the country leaves the European Union (EU), potential delays at the border caused by customs IT and infrastructure not working properly could lead to increased costs, the report said.

“It is imperative that the government sets out how it intends to ensure that the right IT systems and infrastructure are in place for the import and export of agricultural produce so that businesses can continue to trade smoothly with Europe, including the Republic of Ireland, and the rest of the world,” the committee said.

Border IT is currently a heated topic. In December last year, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) discovered that the government did not expect “all new or updated IT systems to be ready” by the time the UK leaves the EU and was assuming risks to the border would not change immediately. This is despite 30 of the 85 IT systems at the UK border needing to be replaced or changed because of Brexit.

HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) new Customs Declaration Service (CDS) system is due to go live in January 2019 – just two months before the UK leaves the EU – and will replace the existing chief customs system used for handling import and export freight from outside the EU, which has been in place for 25 years.

HMRC says it has passed the halfway point in its development work on the system, but still cannot guarantee that the system will be ready by March 2019.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has also been criticised not taking Brexit IT changes seriously enough. Half of the department’s work streams involve IT, yet many of projects are still in the very early stages, simply doing “discovery work” on establishing the needs and scope of the service required.

Once it leaves the EU, the UK could be treated as a “third country”, which means more rigorous checks and paperwork will be needed, particularly on animals and animal products, with veterinary surgeons needing to sign a health certificate to accompany the products.

This system is currently paper-based, and the report called on the government to “invest in IT systems to improve traceability that enables data to be shared along the supply chain and to ensure that export health certificates are in place”.

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