Defra’s experience shows the problems in making Brexit work

The department is struggling to make sense of its post-Brexit responsibilities and freedoms
Photo: Tim Stubbings/Alamy

By Jill Rutter

14 Mar 2024

Boris Johnson fought the 2019 election on a promise to “Get Brexit Done”.  But as our new UK in a Changing Europe report Brexit and the state shows, Brexit is still very much a work in progress.

Take the example of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – a third ranking department whose staff were cut by a third between 2010 and 2016, but which has been forced centre stage post-Brexit as its key policy areas came back from the EU.

Michael Gove – the second post referendum Environment Secretary - early on identified reforming agricultural payments as having the potential to deliver a Brexit win.  He set out ambitious plans on returning to government in 2017 – and after all, dislike of the CAP was one of the few issues that united Leavers and Remainers.

But roll on another seven years, we are still only midway through a prolonged transition. Look under the bonnet, and the great intentions and attempt to build a coalition between farmers and environmentalists in support of ending land-based payments and replacing them with payments for public goods have resulted in a system which risks satisfying no one – despite the huge efforts at co-design by Defra officials for which they have been rightly lauded. The payment system has chopped and changed with the priority of each secretary of state – and there have been five different Defra secretaries since Gove moved on in 2019. 

Farmers now complain about uncertainty making them unable to plan. And they are worried about raids on the farm payment budget – protected in England at least for the lifetime of this parliament according to the Conservative 2019 manifesto but potentially up for grabs after the election.  In Wales, the Labour government has already diverted cash from farm payments to cover a funding shortfall on transport.  A Scottish MSP provoked farmers’ ire by suggesting that money might be better spent on the NHS.

That we can have these debates is a benefit of Brexit. UK (and their Scottish, Welsh and now Northern Irish counterparts) can now make decisions on how and how much to support farming and the countryside, how to balance goals of food production and environmental protection, how much to spend on farm support as compared to other – potentially more pressing – spending priorities.  It is an area where different governments within the UK can tailor policies to their local circumstances.

But conversely it also shows how difficult we have made Brexit for ourselves. Ministerial churn has meant that the UK government has zigzagged even while one party has been in charge. Brexit nimbleness – the ability to change policy without going through painful negotiations with 27 other member states and getting the European Parliament on board – can offer ministers the ability to repeatedly tweak or change policy direction. 

This also shows that ministers collectively have never had a clear view of the future of farming – or indeed food policy more generally since Brexit. While Michael Gove was setting out his robust vision of ending all subsidies to food production, and commissioning a food policy strategy from Henry Dimbleby,  he was embroiled in a row with his fellow Brexit supporter Liam Fox over whether to pursue a trade deal with the US which would inevitably only be sealed if the UK allowed US agricultural imports in despite their lower welfare standards (reader: the trade deal never happened). 

Gove’s successor, George Eustice fumed ineffectually inside government about the deal the UK did to open up its market to Australian beef imports – a deal where the UK negotiators’ hand was undermined by the then prime minister’s desperation for a photo op with then Australian PM Scott Morrison at the G7 summit. The Dimbleby review was quietly shelved. Rishi Sunak meanwhile has finally gained a seal of approval from the National Farmers’ Union for standing up to Canadian pressure over beef in the negotiations over the extension of the rollover deal put in place straight after Brexit.

Meanwhile, while GB producers exporting to the EU had to comply with border formalities from day one of the new Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the UK government has only just got round to starting to implement checks on its border with the EU.  Those in Defra responsible for animal and plant health have been raising concerns about the way the UK has been left vulnerable to new imported diseases which might have been picked up if those controls had been fully operational.

Some farmers who were relieved at the promise of liberation from the shackles of the EU now rue the loss of certainty over payment regimes, the threat of cuts and the loss of the EU’s protectionist shield.  The consumer and taxpayer could and should be the potential beneficiaries – but the government has been unwilling to make that case that it is putting their interests above that of farmers.

In another part of the Defra forest the government set out quite bold plans in its 25 year Environment Strategy, and set up the Office for Environmental Protection to fill the so-called “governance gap” left after Brexit, with the European Commission no longer there to enforce compliance with EU directives.  The OEP covers England and Northern Ireland and there is a similar body in Scotland – Environmental Standards Scotland; Wales has yet to finalise its plans and instead relies on an independent assessor. 

But having set up what the government claimed at the time was going to be a world leading body, it then proceeds to ignore its advice quite routinely.  In its latest assessment of government plans to meet its own environmental targets, the OEP repeated points it made the year before which the government failed to act on. But the OEP is not without influence – when it advised against changing rules on nutrient neutrality to allow more housebuilding (but with potential risks to water quality), the government pressed on but the House of Lords rejected the relevant amendment and the promised new legislation has yet to see the light of day.

A post-election government will find a department struggling to make sense of its post-Brexit responsibilities and post-Brexit freedoms.  It is crying out for a government that can give a clear sense of direction across the entirety of its brief.  The people whose livelihoods depend on Defra decision-making are crying out for some stability in its ministerial team to allow them to plan long-term.

And Defra is just one example. Our new report shows it is far from unique as the UK government struggles to adapt to the post-Brexit world it has created.

Jill Rutter is a senior research fellow at the think tank UK in a Changing Europe and a former senior civil servant

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