Defra’s outdated digital systems leaving nature at risk, MPs warn

MPs have slammed the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) for having “no proactive strategy” to update its ageing IT systems, which it will need to spend more than £700m modernising by 2025.


Defra’s outdated digital systems leaving nature at risk, MPs warn

MPs have slammed the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) for having “no proactive strategy” to update its ageing IT systems, which it will need to spend more than £700m modernising by 2025.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has called digital systems at Defra “outdated, inefficient, expensive, and at constant risk of failure or cyber-attack”.

After an inquiry into the Department’s digital services, which the Department has budgeted £726m to upgrade between 2021 and 2025, the Committee has concluded that they need a complete overhaul. Yet the Committee heard evidence that decisions on how to deliver this transformation are not being made to time, with a lack of overall vision in the Department.

MPs on the PAC heard that some 80% of Defra’s IT applications are either completely unsupported by their supplier or in extended support. Of Defra’s 12 systems with the highest volume of public or business users, two are a mixture of modern and legacy systems and one is an entirely legacy system.

With such outdated digital systems, the Department and its arms-length agencies handle some 14 million transactions each year still involving paper documentation.

The PAC is warning that these inefficiencies increase costs and are likely hampering the Department’s ability to deliver on targets to improve the state of nature. Those making transactions through Defra include farmers, scientists, vets, traders and the operators of air and water quality monitors.

Earlier this year, it was confirmed by the Government’s environmental watchdog that the UK is set to miss all 23 key environmental targets it assessed. Of particular concern were decline in species abundance and stagnant progress in improving water quality and water efficiency.

Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton Brown, deputy chair of the PAC, 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. “

The PAC has stated that, while Defra does need to spend significantly in the coming years to upgrade its IT, a “disjointed” upgrade will not be cost-effective.

edie reached out to Defra for a response to the PAC’s report. A spokesperson said the Department has “made significant progress on enhancing and improving the resilience of our current technology and digital services through an effective and wide-ranging investment plan” and noted that it does have a digital transformation plan in place.

They added: “We have already delivered new and improved services to improve flood warnings, farming and countryside schemes and food imports and exports, developed with the input of end-users and customers.

“Defra is a wide-reaching organisation, and we are committed to improving the quality and availability of our digital services and ensuring our systems are secure and resilient.”

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