Defra still short of 1,400 staff ahead of EU withdrawal deadline

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is still short of 1,400 staff as the Brexit deadline of March 2019 approaches, having already recruited 1,300 new employees since April 2018.

Defra has been stepping up its work ahead of Brexit, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove informing the chair of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Mary Creagh MP that the scope of Defra’s Brexit-related work would increase from 43 work streams to 70, though this work is being carried while having to accommodate £147 million of budget cuts across 2017/18 and 2018/19.

Facing Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Monday (15 October) as part of an inquiry into Defra’s preparedness for Brexit, Defra’s Clare Moriarty, Permanent Secretary, David Kennedy, Director General for Food, Farming, Animal and Plant Health, Sonia Phippard, Director General for Environment, Rural and Marine, and Tamara Finkelstein, Director General for EU Exit Delivery gave evidence on the state of Defra’s preparations.

Clare Moriarty confirmed that Defra has been ‘fast-tracking’ its contingency planning when it became clear that clarity on whether the UK would achieve a Brexit deal with the EU may not arrive by October as previously stated.Defra still short of 1,400 staff ahead of EU withdrawal deadline

Moriarty stated that those working in Defra and those responsible for preparing the UK for Brexit were ‘very conscious of the fact that [they] are managing a huge amount of risk’ and that it is impossible to know what issues there might be with the 14 IT projects that are underway to replace existing systems that govern imports and exports, for example, until end-to-end testing on these projects is completed – a thought that ‘keeps her awake at night’. Moriarty later stated that all the systems ‘would be ready for testing in January’.

In terms of recruitment, Moriarty stated that while 1,300 new employees had been taken on since April 2018, the department still needed to recruit another 1,400 before 29 March 2019 and the stated Brexit deadline. Tamara Finkelstein assured PAC chair, Meg Hillier MP, that Defra was recruiting people from a ‘wide range of areas’, including graduates, and that these were being trained up properly where they had had no previous experience of working in government departments or delivering IT projects. However, Moriarty conceded that it was an ‘absolutely massive challenge’ to get everyone up to speed in the rapidly expanding department.

David Kennedy stated that these new recruits, though some have been taken on on an interim basis, would be needed beyond the Brexit deadline and through the transition period agreed with the EU, though Moriarty said she ‘didn’t expect’ the numbers of staff to fall back to previous levels as the department would be repatriating responsibilities that previously lay with the EU.

Hillier also raised concerns regarding communications between Defra and stakeholders, citing Shaun Spiers of Greener UK as saying that though meetings had been arranged by with Defra officials, “it has been difficult to provide any considered analysis, owing to the nature of the material which has been made available and the circumstances in which it has been shared. Our ability to provide any useful feedback to Defra is hampered.”

Asked whether the work of Defra had been hampered by other departments and whether non-disclosure agreements had been required to be signed with organisations in discussion with Defra regarding EU withdrawal, Finkelstein stated that Defra’s work had ‘not been hampered’ and that non-disclosure agreements were an ‘option’ when it is ‘a good basis on which to have a more detailed conversation’. When challenged by Hillier that the non-disclosure agreements were ‘merrily defending secrecy in Whitehall’, Moriarty said that ‘we are trying to get to the point where we can have as open discussions as possible’.

UK-EU shipments of waste in case of ‘no deal’

Defra has also outlined how it is negotiating with the EU over ensuring the continuation of waste shipments post-Brexit, both in the case of a there being a trade deal agreed and in the case of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Concerns had previously been raised in the House of Lords over the potential impact of Brexit on the UK’s waste trade, with Resources Minister Therese Coffey reassuring the peers that Brexit would have ‘little or no impact on the UK’s waste trade’ back in January, while the Environmental Services Association, which represents the UK’s waste management sector, along with the Dutch Waste Management Association stated that the frictionless trade of waste materials post-Brexit was essential in a joint statement in April.

As part of the government’s series of technical notices on preparing for a ‘no deal’ scenario, Defra has released a document for ‘businesses involved in the import or export of waste how the UK government will maintain the continuity of waste shipments between the UK and the EU in the unlikely event the UK leaves the EU without a deal’ – though it seems Donald Tusk and Angela Merkel might take issue with the word ‘unlikely’ in that sentence.

The document seeks to reassure businesses regarding preparations for a stating that while ‘preparations for a ‘no deal’ scenario would have to be accelerated’ as March 2019 approaches, ‘such an acceleration does not reflect an increased likelihood of a ‘no deal’ outcome. Rather it is about ensuring our plans are in place in the unlikely scenario that they need to be relied upon.’

In the event of ‘no deal’, as notified by the European Commission in January 2018, the import/export licenses issued by the UK would no longer be valid for shipments to the EU27, nor would EU licenses governing the shipment of the waste to the UK.

To ensure that shipments between the EU and UK could continue, licenses would have to undergo a re-approval process, although there is no process currently set out in the EU Waste Shipment Regulations (WSR) on how notified shipments that have already been approved by the relevant UK and EU authorities should be re-approved. Defra has stated that it is ‘contacting other EU countries to discuss arrangements’, while UK and EU exporters of notified shipments will be advised on the next steps to take ‘before the end of November 2018’.

While the UK will remain part of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and party to the Basel Convention on the shipment of hazardous waste, in a ‘no deal’ situation the UK would be treated like any other OECD country, and would have to submit a duly reasoned request (DRR) to export waste to an EU country, explaining why this is necessary. A DRR would be submitted by the UK Government, preceding the submission of a notification to export by a UK exporter to the relevant UK authority. No changes would occur for waste exported for recycling eligible under the Green Control procedure laid down by the OECD and the WSR.

With regard to the shipment of waste from the EU to the UK, the document states that the UK would be treated like any other OECD country and procedures laid down by the Basel Convention and the OECD would continue to apply. However, under the WSR, ‘EU states would be prohibited from exporting waste for disposal, or exporting mixed municipal waste for recovery, to the UK’, as they are prohibited from exporting waste for disposal or exporting mixed municipal waste for recovery to states outside the EU or the European Free Trade Area. There would be no changes to the procedures for the import of waste for recycling.

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