Defra accused of 'fire-and-rehire by stealth' after blocking internal transfers

Union says NDPB staff feel "trapped" after department says they must resign before taking up civil service jobs
Photo: Russell Hart/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

10 Oct 2023

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is forcing officials to resign to move between non-departmental public bodies and other parts of the department, CSW understands.

Staff at a number of NDPBs including the Marine Management Organisation are being told they must resign before taking up civil service roles elsewhere in Defra and other public bodies under its umbrella, according to the PCS union and sources at the body.

Officials who change jobs in this way – sometimes to roles in the same building – lose employment protections and other contractual entitlements in the process, with a day-one reset of rights except for their pension scheme.

New joiners are also being blocked from transferring from other parts of government into public bodies Defra sponsors without quitting their previous roles first.

Natural England is also among the employers being affected by the policy, CSW has been told.

PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka has accused Defra of enacting “barely disguised fire-and-rehire by stealth”.

Staff affected by the policy must go through a probation period again; do not have full employment rights protecting them from dismissal for two years; and have no maternity leave rights for 12 months. They also lose any annual leave entitlement they have built up, sickness allowance, entitlements to redundancy pay and flexible-working rights.

The Cabinet Office's internal transfer policy allows civil servants to move between departments and executive agencies without resigning. However, the policy only covers four NDPBs: the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service; the Health and Safety Executive; the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education; and the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Its guidance says: “If you are employed by any other non-departmental public body, you are not eligible to transfer by this cross-government process.”

But the Civil Service Commission’s recruitment principles state that, under ‘Exception 7: Transfers of staff from other public bodies’, “staff may join the civil service from other public bodies… where the organisation is currently accredited by the commission”.

The MMO – which employs no civil servants – is one of 81 public bodies accredited by the CSC, which reviews organisations’ recruitment procedures and checks that they are broadly in line with its recruitment principles before adding them to the list of accredited bodies. The accreditation allows NDPBs to advertise their vacancies on the Civil Service Jobs website, and for NDPB staff to apply for roles that are advertised across the civil service. 

CSC guidance issued in April 2022 clarifies that staff at an accredited NDPB can transfer to civil service roles without resigning provided they have applied via an internal competition.

Defra has “unilaterally decided to refuse entry into the civil service via the exception, with no regards to the impacts on staff from within the NDPBs that had previously transferred from the civil service,” a source at the MMO told CSW.

A Defra spokesperson told CSW it "has always been the case" that direct transfers between the MMO and the department are not possible.

But the MMO source said: “Defra stating it has never been allowed is incorrect – there are employees both in the MMO and Defra that have successfully transferred in and out of the departments, and other government departments will still use the exception to transfer staff.

"Up until recently, staff transferred in with their existing terms and conditions and there was no issue recognising previous service,” the source added.

The Defra directive has also affected staff moving to the Home Office. However, MMO staff have successfully transferred to HMRC and DWP without needing to resign.

The issues started in 2018 when MMO staff were applying to work in Defra, according to CSW’s source at the regulator. Some, having applied through an open competition, were told they would have to start as a new entrant. This was, the source says, “very hit and miss… and it depended on who dealt with the transfer”.

Since 2022, Defra has blocked transfers both to and from NDPBs and told the MMO to enforce the ban, CSW understands.

It has also instructed the payroll firm SSCL that it should make changes to contracts and refuse transfers.

MMO contracts state existing service will be recognised – and have done since the regulator's creation in 2010, according to PCS.

The regulator began consulting with unions on changing contracts for new starters in August, following the directive from DefraIt is expected to begin a staff consultation shortly. CSW understands the MMO is seeking legal advice on the implications for its current employees.

PCS’s general secretary, Mark Serwotka, told CSW: “Defra is trying to impose these barely disguised fire-and-rehire by stealth plans on MMO, and we strongly oppose them.

“Members in arm's-length bodies should be free to apply to transfer to other government departments without being penalised. Whoever thought up these plans should feel ashamed that our members at MMO feel trapped at an employer they joined in good faith.” 

A Defra spokesperson said:“The MMO is not a civil service organisation and as such direct transfers between MMO and Defra are not possible. This has always been the case. This is in line with the civil service recruitment principles and also applies to all other non-civil service bodies.

“If an MMO employee wishes to join Defra and are successful in their application, they would need to join as a new-entrant civil servant.”

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