Diginomica/government has noted for months now how Defra is a government department that is going to be hugely impacted by Brexit, given that it historically relied on EU-hosted systems for its operations.
MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have previously noted how Defra faces a monumental task in preparing for Brexit, stating that the department is responsible for 43 of the 300+ Brexit-related work-streams across the whole of government, and that almost half of these have an IT component.
It warned back in May that Defra may have to fall back on manual systems to support the transition away from the EU.
Today, whilst the Prime Minister has finally agreed a draft text with the EU on the Withdrawal Agreement and is seeking approval from her Cabinet, the Public Accounts Committee notes that Defra is still largely in the dark as to what Brexit will look like, and as a result is having to prepare for multiple scenarios.
Commenting on the Committee’s latest report, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier, said:
"Brexit looms but the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs is a long way from being ready.
“In the continued uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, Defra’s civil servants must prepare for multiple and in some cases ill-defined scenarios.
“Anyone working in the dark is prone to stumble but in Defra’s case I am concerned that the Department has lost sight of its priorities”
As we await the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and to see whether any potential deal can pass through Parliament, Hillier said that a no-deal is particularly concerning for Defra. She said:
“The risks associated with ‘no-deal’ in particular are severe, and it is alarming how little specific information Defra has provided to enable individual businesses and organisations to prepare.
“Brexit border planning is not sufficiently developed, six critical IT systems are still to be tested and there is a risk that in the Department’s rush to prepare necessary legislation, the quality of that legislation will suffer.”
Last minute testing
The report outlines how Defra is developing six critical IT systems that have not yet been fully tested. These are needed to replace EU systems to which the UK will no longer have access.
The Committee, for example, highlights how the Department is building an import notification system for imports of animals and animal products to replace the EU’s TRACES system (trade control and export system).
And whilst Defra remains confident that its systems will be available in time for a no-deal scenarios in March 2019, it adds that issues are bound to arise as a result of its end-to-end testing.
The report notes that Defra “cannot predict what these issues will be and told us that working to a fixed deadline and dealing with such scale and complexity does mean it is carrying high ricks and cannot guarantee that it will be able to deal with all the issues that arise in time”.
Defra has said that it has “done all it can” to identify, pre-empt and mitigate possible issues with the systems it is developing, but the Committee remains concerned that there will be so much concurrent testing in January, leaving little time to resolve issues that arise.
The most complex system being developed is Defra’s food import notification system. Whilst testing is scheduled for January and February, Defra told the Committee that it is anticipating issues, but that it has contingency plans in place depending on what issues arise.
The Department told MPs that “the thing that keeps me awake at night is the fact that we cannot know until we have gone through this process [end-to-end testing] what we will find”.
Other systems being developed include the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals (REACH) system; a system to support export health certificates; and three other systems - for fish catch certificates, fluoridated gases and ozone-depleting substances, and veterinary medicines authorisation.
We reported back in September 2017 how Defra was facing a ‘cliff edge’ for its systems, as it relates to Brexit. And again in April of this year we noted how the department had extended an IBM contract by 17 months because of the UK’s exit from the EU. Ultimately, the department faces a huge challenge in getting these systems up and running - not only because of the restricted timeframes, but because it is preparing for an unknown scenario.
Hopefully things will be clearer by the end of the year, as we prepare to pass the withdrawal agreement through Parliament. That being said, we could also be preparing for a general election and/or a new referendum if some parties get their way. The first few months of 2019 are going to be very interesting...