Defra confirms freeze on external recruitment

Department says it is aiming to reduce headcount and become "more efficient"
Defra. Photo: Adobe Stock

By Tevye Markson

18 Apr 2024

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has paused all external recruitment as it works on plans to reduce its headcount.

Earlier this week, all advertised jobs at the department disappeared from the Civil Service Jobs website.

A spokesperson for Defra confirmed to CSW that the department’s senior leadership has put all external recruitment on hold “as we look to become a smaller and more efficient department”.

The department plans to reduce its headcount by only recruiting internally, CSW understands. This would mean that the workforce gets smaller when staff leave, with some positions left vacant and others filled with existing staff.

The Defra spokesperson said: “We are working to protect the environment, support our food and farming sectors and deliver for rural communities now and in the years ahead. We want to ensure our talented and dedicated workforce is deployed to meet our greatest priorities, whilst also recognising that as part of our Spending Review settlement and in line with the civil service headcount cap, we have committed to make significant savings.

“This means we will be reducing our staff headcount during the 2024/25 financial year. We plan to achieve this through the internal movement of our workforce, with a focus on skills and capability.

“The senior leadership team has paused external recruitment in the interim and will be engaging with staff and teams as we look to become a smaller and more efficient department.”

CSW asked Defra what this will mean for senior civil service recruitment. All appointments for SCS roles must be advertised externally. Departments can seek exceptions but these must be approved individually, requiring ministerial go-ahead in each instance. Defra had not provided a response at the time of publication.

In October, chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced that civil service headcount would be capped and a plan would be put in place to get it down to pre-pandemic numbers. At that point, the most up-to-date statistics for the civil service headcount, from June 2023, stood at 489,000 (full-time equivalent). The headcount was 503,000 (FTE), as of December 2023. 

The Treasury said the cap “does not equate to a recruitment freeze, and current recruitment campaigns will remain ongoing”. A spokesperon added at the time that the cap is "not about setting arbitrary targets, it is about making sure the direction of travel is down rather than up for the remainder of this SR period (2022-23 to 2024-25), and stopping unchecked growth".

The latest statistics for Defra's workforce show the department's FTE headcount has fallen slightly between June and December 2023, dropping from 12,570 to 12,375.

Defra's headcount has almost doubled, however, since the Brexit referendum was held in June 2016, when the department had 6,380 (FTE) officials on its books, and it has risen by 27% since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK in early 2020. In December 2019 and March 2020, Defra had 9,500 (FTE) officials.

Defra also paused recruitment in May 2022 in response to then-prime minister Boris Johnson’s plan to cut 91,000 jobs, which Rishi Sunak scrapped upon his appointment as PM five months later.

This freeze put in place“strict recruitment controls" which meant that for at least three months hiring could only go ahead for “critical” roles approved by a director general or chief executive.

That year, in June, Defra's headcount rose above 12,000 and has stayed above that number in the following year-and-a-half.

Defra's headcount rose from 11,980 in March 2022 to 12,180 in September 2022 , before dipping slightly to 12,090 in March 2023, and then rising to the current headcount of 12,375.

In February this year, the department said it was exploring new ways "to attract the bright talent needed to fill our roles", after farming minister Mark Spencer revealed that one in five digital, data and technology roles are vacant.

Union Prospect blamed this on "poor starting salaries and lack of pay progression" at the department, which it said means Defra is "simply unable to compete effectively in areas such as IT where there are private sector analogues for the skilled staff they are seeking to recruit".

The department said it was "hiring experts with experience of recruiting in the technology space, utilising our pay framework, revamping our careers site as well as increasing the visibility of our roles on websites, such as LinkedIn".

Defra officials received a pay rise of 6-7.5% in 2023-24 after a pay flexibility case was agreed.

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