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Outdated IT systems threaten UK food security and air quality, say MPs

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Food security and air quality in the UK are being put at risk by outdated IT systems at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), a parliamentary committee has found.

MPs have said the situation “cannot continue” as officials are having to use paper forms rather than digital systems to track fast-moving animal disease and keep food, air and water safe.

In some cases, the report says, systems are so old that they have no protection from cyber-attacks.

A report by the public accounts committee (PAC) has found that Defra is using such old programmes that users in some cases need to find old secondhand laptops to run them, and that 80% of Defra’s IT applications remain either in extended support, possibly incurring additional charges for updates, or are unsupported by their supplier.

MPs criticised Defra for not having a strategy for reducing reliance on paper forms and making applications widely available on mobile phones. Defra and its organisations handle about 14m paper transactions each year.

It also found the department was struggling to recruit digital, data and technology staff, and so it remained overreliant on contractors, which could cost up to twice as much.

The department estimates it will have to spend £726m on modernising legacy services between 2021 and 2025. But PAC says the lack of overall vision means any changes made now to its digital systems may not be appropriate in the longer-term and could lead instead to wasted time and money.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, PAC’s deputy chair, 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.

“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.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We have made significant progress on enhancing and improving the resilience of our current technology and digital services through an effective and wide-ranging investment plan.

“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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