Defra’s IT systems outdated, inefficient and expensive, says committee

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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is using “outdated”, “inefficient” and “expensive” IT systems at risk of failure or cyber attack, a parliamentary committee has warned.

The systems are used for trade, disease prevention, flood protection and air quality monitoring, with farmers, vets, scientists and traders saying they feel outdated and difficult to use.

Defra and its organisations are still using paper forms to handle about 14 million transactions a year in a system that “cannot continue”, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said.

A new report published by PAC – which assesses value for money on Government projects – said Defra does not have a proactive plan to transform its digital services or for reducing reliance on paper forms and allowing applications to be done through smartphones.

Defra has also not given enough attention to the impact of its poor digital services on users, PAC said, and the burden it places on other organisations and the wider economy is unknown because Defra does not measure the cost.

Defra is also struggling to recruit enough digital, data and technology staff, and so remains over-reliant on contractors, which can cost twice as much, PAC said.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, deputy chair of the committee, said: “Defra’s IT systems are so outmoded and disconnected – where they exist at all instead of paper forms – that in some cases the professionals who keep our food, water and air safe have been forced to buy obsolete equipment just to fill in the forms to fulfil their regulatory responsibilities.

“We are facing down rapidly spreading animal diseases, maybe the next pandemic, with systems that may rely on moving paper forms around. This cannot continue.”

Defra has estimated it needs to spend £726 million on updating its services between 2021 and 2025, PAC said, and that a full transformation of its digital systems could save £20 million to £25 million each year.

Sir Geoffrey said: “We on the PAC will also not accept a situation where Defra spends hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on a disjointed upgrade programme only to find that it no longer fits the structure of new systems of air quality monitoring, food and clean water supply in this country.

“It’s time for a complete overhaul at Defra, with a concurrent, proactive digital strategy that matches every step.”

The committee recommends that Defra develop a long-term digital and data strategy, identify problems and costs faced by its digital users, set out how it will ensure that any decisions made now to update the system will not have to be overhauled in future and explain how it will recruit enough staff to end its reliance on contractors.

Defra has been approached for comment.

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