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Defra criticised over no-deal IT systems plan

The introduction of slower, burdensome systems brought about by the challenges of preparing for Brexit must not become the ‘new normal’, MPs warn

Current plans to get IT systems ready for a no-deal Brexit scenario are not enough to address the practical challenges the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will face, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have warned.

The committee suggested in a report that departments, in particular Defra, had adopted a “risky and rushed” approach to tackling the issue and were struggling to prepare for a situation where the UK leaves the EU without a deal.

Even though failure to get systems ready could affect the flow of food supplies, Defra has been and remains “over-optimistic” in its preparations, the report said, noting that the department was developing new IT systems for the event of a no-deal exit.

Backup plans mentioned in the report include Defra’s introduction of manual processes, which are predicted to be “slower, have a higher error rate and be more burdensome for users”.

In November 2018, Defra told the committee that it was confident its systems would be ready in time for a no-deal scenario, but it recognised issues were bound to arise as a result of end-to-end testing.

At the time, Defra admitted that it couldn’t predict what the issues would be or if it would be able to tackle all of them. It added that tight deadlines and the scale and complexity associated with testing six critical IT systems meant it was “carrying high risk”.

The latest PAC report warned that the department’s approach to decision-making adopted in response to the current challenges must not become “the new normal”.

“In the event of Brexit, and the longer-term challenges this presents, it is vital that taxpayers can have confidence their money is being spent wisely and with due consideration for the risks involved,” it said.

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