2 weeks till Brexit and Defra, at the very least, looks set to be caught with its IT pants down

Manual backup plans will be slow, burdensome and error-prone, sighs report

The UK government has moved so slowly to prepare for a no-deal Brexit that backup plans for IT systems will be burdensome and more error-prone, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have warned.

The committee has hounded government departments about their plans for the UK's exit from the European Union without a deal for more than a year.

Throughout, the MPs expressed concern about the pace of progress and lack of urgency – and have today said they are disappointed some of these fears have come to fruition.

In a report titled Brexit: Risky and rushed activity must not become "new normal", the committee looked particularly at the Department for Transport and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Overall, it said both of those areas of government have remained over-optimistic and under-prepared, employing "risky and rushed" actions that are "far from business-as-usual".

MPs pointed specifically to the Seaborne Freight fiasco, saying the DfT did limited work to review bids, and ended up choosing one from a startup rather than an actual ferry company, without suitable assurances, which ultimately failed.

They also criticised a lack of openness throughout the prep, and said this lack of transparency must not become a trend.

Defra was identified early on as one of the departments with the biggest risks related to Brexit – and half of its projects for the exit involved IT in some way.

For its no-deal planning, Defra was developing six key IT systems, of which only two have gone live. The remaining four are still being tested.

If these systems aren't ready, Defra will have to rely on a manual fall back that will likely not easily integrate with other systems.

"These backup plans include introducing manual processes which will be slower, have a higher error rate and be more burdensome for users," the report said.

Similar problems were raised by the National Audit Office last month, which noted that one backup solution to problems integrating with HMRC systems was simply not to require certain information, which it said "could lead to a small increase in biosecurity and food safety risk at the border".

Defra told the PAC at a recent evidence session the biggest risk to successful delivery is that "a number of [systems] depend on a common registration module" which it was working on to make user-friendly.

But the committee concluded it was "not convinced that the departments' current plans will be enough to address the practical challenges they would face in the event of no deal".

Commenting on the government's approach, chairwoman Meg Hillier said: "Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, the Whitehall machinery must reflect on the activity of recent months and years and use what it has learned to drive real improvements." ®

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