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Defra’s “outmoded” IT systems leave department at risk of cyberattack

Legacy systems could put disease prevention and air quality monitoring at risk, says the Public Accounts Committee.

By Claudia Glover

Legacy IT systems at government environmental department Defra could put the country’s trade and disease prevention at risk, MPs on parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have said. Some systems are so outdated that 14 million Defra transactions a year take place using paper forms. This dramatically increases “the risk of failure or cyberattacks,” according to a PAC report. The department does not expect to resolve its legacy IT issues until 2030. MPs are calling for a coordinated overhaul of the system, which could cost up to £726m, potentially saving a yearly sum of £25m.

The report reveals that many of the 365 core applications used by Defra in areas of its work such as disease prevention, flood prevention and air quality monitoring use software that is now outdated. It says 30% of these are no longer supported by their supplier and 50% are in extended support, where Defra may have to pay additional charges for updates.

It says some of the systems are so outdated that those using them have to buy second-hand equipment to run its outdated software.

Left unchecked, this could lead to a dangerous situation for the public, says Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, deputy chair of the committee. “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,” Clifton-Brown said.

“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.”

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The limitations of the systems could hinder Defra’s efforts to fight animal disease according to Rebecca Veale, chief policy adviser at the National Pig Association.

“Our key concern is the risk African swine fever poses to the British herd, given the challenge the disease presents in mainland Europe,” Veale told Farmers Weekly. “We do question their ability to respond to more than one notifiable disease outbreak at a time given the limited resources they have – an issue the National Pig Association has raised on numerous occasions.”

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While funding has been earmarked specifically to level up the department’s outdated systems, Clifton-Brown says it is vital that this is done in a cohesive way across the whole department, otherwise updates will only bring further confusion.

“We on the PAC will 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,” he said. “ It’s time for a complete overhaul at Defra, with a concurrent, proactive digital strategy that matches every step.”

The Central Digital and Data Office at the Cabinet Office (CDDO) is working with departments at Defra in an effort to ensure that these updates will work with their corresponding systems across the entire department. According to the report, the CDDO is working with Defra to ensure at least 50 of the 75 highest-priority customer services across government reach a “great” standard by 2025. 

Despite the optimism of the CDDO that such a standard can be met, however, Defra’s current plans do not show practically how such progress will be made.

Defra has been contacted for its response to the report.

This article first appeared on Tech Monitor on 11th May