Defra told to do more to attract more diverse candidates to lead agencies

Committees endorse government's choice to lead environmental protection agency but tell Defra to "learn lessons" from recruitment round

Tony Juniper, the next chair of Natural England. Photo: PA

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been told to adjust the way it recruits to senior positions to attract a more diverse range of candidates.

The recommendation was made in a report approving Tony Juniper, an environmentalist and head of advocacy at the wildlife charity WWF-UK, as the next chair of the Defra agency Natural England. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee and Environmental Audit Committee carried out a joint pre-appointment hearing of Juniper on 26 February after he was announced as the government’s chosen candidate for the role.

The report also urged Defra to “learn lessons” from the recruitment process.


Diversity data published in the report revealed 91% of applicants for the role, and all those shortlisted, were white. Men made up 61% of applicants and 71% of shortlisted candidates, and no applicants were disabled.

The committees acknowledged that Defra did commit to advertising the chair role widely to attract a broad range of applicants – a move they described as “commendable”. However, they criticised the “continued prevalence of white male candidates over those from other backgrounds”.

“Defra should learn lessons from this recruitment process and aim to conduct future campaigns in a manner more conducive to attracting a diverse range of applicants,” the report said. Steps the department could take could include broadening the advertisement of job postings further and providing multiple platforms through which to submit applications, it suggested.

Environment secretary Michael Gove put forward Juniper’s name for the role, which is subject to a pre-appointment hearing under the government’s Code on Public Appointments, in February.

The chair of Natural England will lead the environmental protection agency as it supports the government’s 25-year environment plan and works with Defra to implement post-Brexit policy on environmental protection, fishing and farming.

Juniper has spent his career working for conservation charities including Friends of the Earth and has written several books on conservation and the value of nature. He was appointed a CBE in 2017 for services to conservation.

Juniper is executive director for advocacy and campaigns at WWF-UK, from which he will resign when he takes up his post at Natural England. He also said he would likely resign from a second role as president of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts.

He will remain as a fellow at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Juniper is also a shareholder of the Robertsbridge Group, a sustainability consultancy, but said he would refrain from carrying out any work for companies with interests that conflicted with his work for Natural England. During the hearing he also said he would consider resigning from the role.

“We welcome Juniper’s offer that he divests his interests in the Robertsbridge Group and recommend that he does so,” the report said.

The two committees also said their support for Juniper’s appointment depend was contingent on him refraining from political activity “to demonstrate his commitment to upholding the highest standards of political impartiality”.

Juniper stood as a Green Party candidate in the 2010 General Election but has since had “minimal involvement” in the party, according to the report. He said he would review his party membership, which the committees welcomed.

Agency faces "fundamental challenges"

Environmental audit committee chair Mary Creagh welcomed Juniper’s appointment, saying: “Tony has been an enthusiastic champion of our natural environment and wildlife for many years."

But she also reitereated her committee’s concerns over “fundamental challenges” facing Natural England, which has seen its budget cut by more than half in the last eight years, she said, "resulting in staff shortages, failure to meet waiting times, and low staff morale".

Last year Creagh warned Natural England “must not become a poor relation to Defra” after it emerged that the department had “raided” its agencies for staff to assist with Brexit preparations. Fifty of the 400 staff pulled from agencies to work in the central department came from Natural England.

“Ministers must ensure the valuable work it does to promote biodiversity is given the priority it deserves,” Creagh said at the time.

On the publication of the pre-appointment hearing report, she said: “We hope that under Tony’s leadership the organisation will be successful in the upcoming spending review, enabling it to fulfil its key functions to government and protect our environment.”

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