Gove raids 400 staff from environment bodies for Defra Brexit preparations
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has been accused of having “raided” 400 staff from state environment bodies in order to plug workforce gaps in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in preparation for Brexit.
In a letter to Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which monitors the environmental impact of government policies, Gove confirmed that 400 EU Exit posts at Defra had been filled by staff from bodies such as the Environment Agency (EA), Natural England, the Rural Payments Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Agency.
The Environment Secretary’s letter confirmed that as of the end of September 2018, Defra had recruited more than 2,000 staff to work on Brexit – Defra has the most Brexit workstreams out of any government department – with more than 1,800 already in post. It was not confirmed in the letter over what timescale the 2,000 staff had been recruited.
As part of an inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) into Defra’s preparedness for Brexit, Defra Permanent Secretary Claire Moriarty told the PAC that 1,300 staff had been recruited since April 2018 and that the department was still short of 1,400 staff ahead of the Brexit deadline of 29 March 2019.
The EA has been particularly affected by the reallocation of staff, with the Guardian revealing this week that the organisation was given just 24 hours to find 75 staff to move onto Brexit work at Defra. The EA has been overstretched in recent times and has come in for criticism from the National Audit Office (NAO), which revealed in a report in July that the EA’s monitoring of the plastic recycling system exhibited serious shortcomings, allowing for significant ‘fraud and error’ in the system.
In 2016/17, the EA undertook 124 compliance visits to plastics reprocessors and exporters, short of its target of 346, while only three unannounced site visits were made in 2017/18, covering only 1.4 per cent of accredited reprocessors and exporters in the UK. It remains to be seen whether the reallocation of its staff will affect its recently launched investigation into claims of widespread fraud in the plastic recycling industry, with allegations that exporters are falsely claiming for significant tonnages of plastic waste through the packaging responsibility system.
Gove’s letter was written in response to concerns raised by Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the EAC, regarding Natural England’s ability to deliver on its statutory responsibilities such as protecting England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Figures from Natural England show that there has been a fall over the last two years in the proportion of SSSIs assessed as being in a favourable condition.
Gove confirmed that around 50 staff had been seconded from Natural England for two years, with 13 of the secondees spending more than 50 per cent of their time working on SSSIs. Gove states that ‘the work that people were doing on SSSIs prior to their EU Exit secondments has been passed to others to absorb into their workplans’.
However, Gove added that while ‘priority roles such as those that are required to enable delivery of statutory responsibilities are being backfilled... secondees’ substantive roles which are not deemed a high priority have been left unfilled and work reallocated or paused for now’. Furthermore, ‘where loans or secondments align to supporting required efficiency savings in the exporting organisation then roles have not been backfilled and will be removed from future structures’.
Defra is currently having to accommodate £147 million of cuts across 2017/18 and 2018/19, while its departmental resource budget is set to be reduced by a further £100 million between 2018/19 and 2019/20.
Commenting on Gove’s letter, Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee said: “Preparations for leaving the EU must not get in the way of protecting our treasured natural spaces and iconic British wildlife. It is disappointing that Defra has raided staff at Natural England, the organisation responsible for protecting some of the most highly valued wildlife areas in England to prepare for Brexit. Natural England must not become a poor relation to Defra. Ministers must ensure the valuable work it does to promote biodiversity is given the priority it deserves.”