The two UK government departments most exposed to Brexit have yet to show progress on how their IT systems will cope with the "unprecedented" challenge of leaving the EU – Parliament's Public Accounts Committee today warned.
"The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for International Trade (DIT) face an unprecedented challenge in preparing for Brexit," the panel of MPs noted.
We are concerned about how realistic the departments' plans for Brexit are, especially where new IT systems are required...
"Their preparations, however, are being hampered by the pervasive uncertainty about the UK's future relationship with the EU, which leaves not only departments but also businesses in the dark about exactly what they need to do to prepare."
The spending watchdog has repeatedly warned of the serious risks to Defra's IT systems, adding today that the DIT faces similar changes.
"We are concerned about how realistic the departments' plans for Brexit are, especially where new IT systems are required. But both departments appear optimistic that they can deliver what's required to be ready for March 2019, whatever the outcome of the negotiations," said the report.
Some 20 of Defra's 43 workstreams have an IT component, four of which have a "build" element in the event of a "no deal" scenario. The PAC said "There are substantial risks, including disruption to the agri-food and chemical industries, if Defra’s IT systems are not ready in time."
"This means that Defra, in particular, is having to work up options for the three different scenarios – deal, no deal or transition. This is time-consuming and costly. It also has to navigate new legislation and major IT programmes in very short time," the report added.
In a no-deal scenario, Defra is currently looking at introducing manual processes if IT systems are not ready.
Committee chair Meg Hillier said: "Our committee has repeatedly raised concerns about government’s preparedness for life outside the EU. The clock is ticking and there is still no clarity about what Brexit will mean in practice."
Given Defra's poor track record on IT delivery, the committee urged the department to ensure it has the necessary resources in place to complete IT programmes on time and avoid costly and embarrassing contingencies involving manual completion and submission of forms. "We expect Defra to update us on its progress by the end of June 2018."
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Last week the committee found the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will require a dozen of its Brexit programmes to have digital systems to replace many of the current databases currently shared by the UK and EU. However, the department has yet to begin the procurement process – something it will start in the next few months.