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Half of Defra’s Brexit work streams involve IT, NAO finds

NAO calls on Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure proper planning as half of its Brexit projects, many of which are still in “discovery phases”, involve IT

The National Audit Office (NAO) has called on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to “urgently” initiate procurement processes for its Brexit projects involving IT.

An NAO report, published today (20 December), found that nearly half of the department’s Brexit work streams involve IT, ranging from minor updates to completely new systems, with many of the projects still in the very early stages.

Defra is one of the departments most affected by Brexit, with 43 work streams related to the UK leaving the EU – 20 of them involving IT – and needs to ensure it ramps up its work, the NAO said.

“In a number of cases, work streams with an IT component are still in the ‘discovery’ phase, establishing the needs of users and the scope of the service needed. Until this stage is completed, the scope and timescale for some work streams cannot be finalised and are subject to change,” the NAO report said.

It added that the department still hasn’t been granted all its rights to spend resources, such as planning for eventualities like a no-deal scenario, to ensure it’s ready to handle whatever the outcome is.

“Where work streams comprise a significant IT element, the department needs urgently to initiate procurement processes to complete implementation in time,” the NAO said.

The department shares responsibility with departments such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Home Office for UK border IT. Earlier this month, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that the government did not expect “all new or updated IT systems to be ready” by the time the UK leaves the European Union (EU), with 30 of the 84 border IT systems needing to be replaced or changed due to Brexit.

“Defra’s programme is highly dependent on EU exit policy in other parts of government, with extensive cross-government collaboration and coordination required,” the NAO said.

Commenting on the NAO report, a Defra spokesperson said that just like other government departments, it has "extensive programme of work focused on preparing for a range of scenarios to make sure we deliver a green Brexit."

“We have utilised resources, continue to build the right skills, experience, and leadership to make the most of the opportunities ahead and are in ongoing discussions with Treasury about future funding requirements," the spokesperson said. 

Most of Defra’s systems are heavily based around EU policy, such as customs clearance of imports of animals and animal products, which is currently managed through the EU’s Trade, Control and Expert System. However, the NAO said the department may need to replace this system with its own version when the UK leaves the EU.

The enormous amount of work needed to ensure the department is ready for Brexit also means Defra has had to postpone other projects, such as the creation of a centralised customer contact hub, the NAO report said. 

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