Defra announces hiring freeze

Redundancies a "last resort" as department aims to achieve workforce reduction through natural attrition
Defra office. Photo: Russell Hart/Alamy

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has introduced “strict recruitment controls” for at least the next three months to help meet ministers’ aim to cut civil service jobs by 91,000 over the next three years.

Hiring can only go ahead for “critical” roles approved by a director general or chief executive, according to an official-sensitive memo sent to staff this week.

The freeze will help Defra to get a head start on its own headcount reduction, which the department’s leaders hope to achieve mostly through “natural attrition”, it said.

But they warned redundancies may be needed “as a last resort” to hit targets.

“We will be doing everything we can to protect jobs and minimise the impact on individuals,” the memo, sent by Defra HR and seen by CSW, read.

“We know this is difficult news, particularly if you or your team have been carrying vacancies or are stretched. However, we believe that in taking action now we will have more options about how we meet any challenges later on,” it added.

The department will honour job offers that have already been made for candidates that are already going through the “onboarding process” – but even jobs currently being advertised could be withdrawn.

“We are looking at what we need to do with recruitment that is currently in process and will let you know soon,” the document said.

The hiring restrictions came into effect on 25 May and cover permanent staff, fixed and short-term appointments, contingent labour and contract extensions across both the core department, and its civil service arm’s-length bodies: the Animal and Plant Health Agency ,Veterinary Medicines Directorate, the Rural Payments Agency and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.

Career-entry routes such as the Fast Stream, Civil Service Care Leaver Internship Scheme and apprenticeships can only be used to hire people if the job fulfils the “critical role” criteria.

Recruitment ‘won’t return to how it was’

While the freeze is only initially in place for three months, the department warned that its approach to recruitment “won’t return to how it was” once the three months are up.

“The likelihood is instead that we will have to operate some forms of recruitment controls over the coming years,” it said.

“We will need to work together to develop a longer term, more informed, nuanced, and effective system for the future.”

The department’s existing transformation programmes are a “good starting place for where we might become smaller and more efficient”, the memo added.

“We know that this announcement may feel sudden and some of you may find this challenging and difficult. Please take extra care to consider your and your teams' wellbeing at this time,” it said.

“It is however important to stress that we will have time to work through these proposals and time to deliver on them. We will make sure that the actions we take are in line with our values, so that Defra continues to be a brilliant place that does important and impressive work.”

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