Just 650 of the 1,200 Brexit roles that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs requires by March 2018 currently have someone in post, auditors revealed today.
Defra, which has lost almost 5,000 people since 2010-11 through spending cuts, said that 150 staff have been hired but are not yet in post, while 400 roles remain unfilled. Some 150 of the required roles are in project management.
The National Audit Office warned that “recruitment is expected to become more challenging as competition for skilled staff increases across government and the public sector”.
It also warned of other risks facing the department, which is still expected to make budget cuts of £147m to 2019 despite its heavy Brexit workload. Competing demands from elsewhere in government also risk its ability to push through the vast amounts of legislation it requires for EU exit, the NAO said.
In a report setting out the scale of the task facing Defra as it prepares for Brexit, the NAO revealed that around 80% of the department’s work is currently framed by EU legislation.
Meanwhile Defra’s extensive legislative programme – it has identified the need for two major bills to establish UK policies for agriculture and fisheries and 95 pieces of secondary legislation to convert EU laws into UK law – could be put at risk by “delays to the negotiations and competing demands across government”, the report added.
Defra is responsible for 43 of the civil service’s 313 EU exit workstreams, second only to the business department which has 69. Of those 43, 20 are expected to have some IT component.
Responding to the NAO report, Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, was particularly concerned about the department’s poor record on delivering IT projects.
She said: “Until recently Defra was a small and shrinking department. The NAO’s report shows that Defra has been hit with an immense amount of Brexit work, critical to the protecting the environment, farming, fishing and the UK chemical industry.
“Defra’s track record of failure in implementing a new system of farm subsidy payments, which the committee examined in 2016 and 2017, hardly fills me with confidence in its ability to replace EU programmes with home-grown successors.”
The department is currently reviewing its workload “to establish which areas of work can be stopped, slowed down or reduced in scope”, the NAO said. It has also “agreed proposals for prioritising its ICT portfolio”.
The Treasury approved £94.4m Brexit spending for Defra in 2017-18, but the department is still required by the 2015 spending review to make £147m budget reductions in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
In summer 2017 Defra estimated it would need an additional £178m for Brexit work in 2018-19. It is currently preparing its bid for funding next year from the £3bn pot the Treasury pledged for EU exit work across government in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
The majority of new staff hired for Brexit work are on fixed term contracts. But the NAO said that after Brexit, Defra will require a more permanent increase in headcount as it takes on additional responsibilities from the EU, for example in chemicals and pesticides, animal imports and exports, and developing agricultural policy.
A Defra spokesperson said: “As with other government departments, we have an extensive programme of work focused on preparing for a range of scenarios to make sure we deliver a green Brexit.
“We have utilised resources, continue to build the right skills, experience, and leadership to make the most of the opportunities ahead and are in ongoing discussions with Treasury about future funding requirements.”