Defra’s civil service chief has sought to downplay concerns about the department’s ability to set up a raft of vital new IT systems after Brexit by suggesting they are ‘significantly less complex’ than the one used to deliver Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments.
Claire Moriarty, the department’s permanent secretary, made the remarks when giving evidence to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee last week.
She told MPs the department had 43 Brexit readiness projects on the go, with about 20 having some kind of IT element.
Of those, a new import control system, a replacement for chemicals registration and a system for processing export health certificates were highlighted by Ms Moriarty as being ‘most at risk of delay or failure’.
Asked by MP and active farmer Sir Geoffrey Clifton Brown whether Defra would be capable of delivering those projects, Ms Moriarty said: “There are four [projects] where in a no deal scenario, we are certain we will need some element of build.
“These are builds which are significantly less complex than the CAP delivery system. If you look at the CAP delivery system, there are very complicated rules, an interface with a mapping-based system and 88,000 people who all need to access it directly.
“The import control IT system, which is the most complicated one we need to introduce, is a relatively straightforward function of being able to capture information about food coming into the country, with a relatively simple portal, and there are only about 3,000 expert users who will need to work with it.”
It is hoped a Brexit transition period would give the department extra time to work on all the IT systems, but if the UK does walk away from talks without a deal and they are not ready, contingencies are being put in place.
Despite estimating Defra will need an extra £200 million for next year’s Brexit preparations, which could be supplied by the Treasury, Ms Moriarty said the department remained ‘committed’ to delivering £138 million of savings in 2018.
She told the committee the bulk of those savings would come from streamlining existing IT systems and cutting duplicated farm inspections.
Staff working across the Defra group who would have ordinarily lost their jobs as part of a cost-cutting exercise have also been put to work on EU exit.
Only around 30 per cent of the 1,200 new posts created by Brexit have gone to external candidates.