MPs Warn On ‘Unprecedented’ Brexit Trade IT Challenge

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Defra and the Department for International Trade face an ‘impossible’ task in preparing for Brexit

Two UK government departments dealing with international trade face an “impossible challenge” as they attempt to plan IT systems for Britain’s exit from the EU, a parliamentary committee has warned.

The situation risks creating severe difficulties for businesses and the economy, parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said its latest report on Brexit.

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for International Trade (DIT) face “unprecedented” difficulties in their IT preparations due to the fact that the nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU after March 2019 remains unknown.

“Their preparations… 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 PAC said.

EU Brexit referedumUnfounded optimism?

Defra, in particular, is having to consider options for three different scenarios, deal, no deal or transition, which is time-consuming and costly, while also navigating new legislation and major IT programmes in a short time, the committee said.

Both departments “appear optimistic” that they will be prepared when the deadline arrives, but the PAC said it was not convinced solid plans were in place.

“We are concerned about how realistic the departments’ plans for Brexit are, especially where new IT systems are required,” the report said.

“If the UK leaves the single market and customs union there need to be clear alternatives in place or business and the economy will suffer.”

Defra has said it will fall back onto manual systems if needed, but this “could impede or at least slow down imports nad exports, causing severe delays at the border”, the PAC warned.

“Both departments have an impossible challenge and don’t have a clear plan of top priorities,” the committee said, adding that the departments must be clear about what they will not be able to deliver as a result of Brexit.

‘The clock is ticking’

Twenty of Defra’s 43 workstreams have an IT component, four of which will require “build” work if a “no deal” scenario arrives, the PAC said.

“Our committee has repeatedly raised concerns about government’s preparedness for life outside the EU,” committee chair Meg Hillier said. “The clock is ticking and there is still no clarity about what Brexit will mean in practice.”

The committee recently found the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) would reqire more than a dozen new digital systems to replace databases currently shared by the UK and the EU. It said BEIS had only recently started setting out system requirements and had yet to begin procurement, which would begin in the next two or three months.

The PAC and the National Audit Office have both raised questions over the Brexit readiness of HMRC’s customs union IT and the Home Office’s border technology.

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