The top civil servants at two of the departments most inundated by the demands of Brexit have told MPs of their staffing plans for a no-deal exit from the European Union – and their “buddy” arrangements with other ministries.
Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs permanent secretary Clare Moriarty and Department for Transport perm sec Bernadette Kelly told members of the Public Accounts Committee that their departments had been matched with buddy departments as part of arrangements to streamline the sharing of staff. Plans have also seen the creation of a government "clearing hub" for secondments across Whitehall.
Moriarty said her department had so far recruited about 2,500 people to deal with Brexit, as well as seconding in others from its own agencies and lining up “about 100” loan staff from the Department for Education, which is Defra's buddy department.
Moriarty’s update substantiates reports that Michael Gove had “raided” Defra agencies for staff to work on Brexit at the central department, and DfE perm sec Jonathan Slater’s reported call last month for staff to volunteer for Brexit-related secondments.
The perm sec did not detail the number of secondments from agencies – a report from last year suggested that more than 400 staff had been redeployed, the bulk of them from the Environment Agency and environmental protection adviser Natural England.
However she did reveal some details of Defra’s planning for a no-deal Brexit, which is the current default position for the UK’s departure from the European Union on 29 March if prime minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement fails to secure the backing of MPs, or Article 50 is not withdrawn or extended.
“We’ve been through successive internal reprioritisations since September last year,” she said. “We’ve reprioritised something like 250 people onto no-deal work, to quite a significant extent, to ensure greater resilience and make sure we’re not overloading people. We’ve got some roles where we’ve got two people doing the same job in order to provide that resilience.”
Moriarty added: “We’ve looked at what we would need in the event of a full no-deal and we’re currently standing up our emergency centre. You need a lot of people per post in order to ensure that we can run 24-hour cover.”
Morarty said that in such an eventuality it was likely that the department would receive "further tranches of people coming on loan from the Department for Education”.
Department for Transport perm sec Bernadette Kelly told MPs that her department’s Brexit staffing requirements were “less significant in scale relative to the department’s size” than they were for Defra.
“At the moment we’ve got about 260 people – full-time equivalents – working on Brexit-related business,” she said.
“In the event of a no-deal exit and us having to exercise all of our contingency plans we’d see a very significant increase in those numbers for a period of time. We could see that going up to between 600 and 700 at peak activity, dealing with disruption. That is what we are planning for because we’re planning for reasonable worst-case scenarios [with] round-the-clock working.”
Kelly said most of DfT’s Brexit-focused staff were being redeployed within the department.
“We are [doing some] external recruitment, but we are receiving some staff in particular from the Ministry of Justice – about 40 is the current plan,” she said.
“We are principally relying on people being redeployed within the department, though with some additional people being brought in from other departments or externally to help us through a period of contingency planning if needed.”
While Moriarty described DfE as her ministry’s “buddy” department, Kelly said the MoJ and the Ministry of Defence were hers – however she did not detail the extent of support the MoD was currently offering.
Asked about the cross-Whitehall efforts to ensure Brexit staffing resilience, Kelly said the Department for Exiting the European Union had created “more [of] a clearing hub than a centre of excellence” to aid secondments.
“What’s happening is that in order for these loans to happen rapidly and with minimum bureaucracy DExEU/the government has set up a kind of hub to match up people from departments who are putting resources into the pot to departments who need additional resources as rapidly and effectively as possible,” she said.
Elsewhere in the PAC hearing Kelly defended her department’s handling of the now-cancelled award of a ferry services contract to Seaborne Freight to restart roll-on, roll-off ferry services between Ostend and Ramsgate to give the government additional capacity to counter cross-Channel disruption in the “short straits”.
She insisted the contract, only awarded in December, had not resulted in any payments to Seaborne – which notoriously lacks any ferries. However, she conceded that there would have been expenses related to the procurement process that resulted in the award.
Moriarty also told MPs that while she did not believe there would be shortages of food in the UK as a result of a no-deal exit from the European Union, there may be a different perception among the public.
“Our best understanding is that in the event that there was significant disruption on the short straits that there would be a reduction in availability and a reduction in choice, particularly with those perishable just-in-time goods,” she said.
“But there would not be an absence of food. We would not face a food shortage as a country.
“When you look at all the other places food comes from, we have very, very diverse chains for food.”
Moriarty admitted that there were “potentially issues” for what she described as “geographically vulnerable” communities and other vulnerable groups, particularly in relation to increased food prices.