Environment secretary Michael Gove has “raided” the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ agencies for hundreds of staff as part of the ministry's preparations for Brexit, it has emerged.
In a letter responding to MPs’ concerns over Defra agencies’ ability to continue with their statutory duties, Gove said that “over 400” of the 2,000 Brexit-related roles that the department had recruited involved loans or secondments staff from other parts of the department’s empire.
Defra is widely acknowledged to have one of Whitehall’s biggest Brexit-related workloads. A National Audit Office report on the department’s preparations for leaving the European Union said it had 55 workstreams – the second-highest of any department.
Gove’s letter, published today by parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, said that of the 400-plus staff brought into the central department to work on Brexit-related roles, around 50 had come from environmental-protection adviser Natural England.
The majority of the remaining 350 staff had come from the Environment Agency, the Rural Payments Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, the environment secretary and leading Brexiteer said.
Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh said it was “disappointing” that Defra had “raided” staff at Natural England at a time when the watchdog’s own figures showed a fall in the proportion of Sites of Special Scientific Interest assessed to be in a “favourable” condition.
“Preparations for leaving the EU must not get in the way of protecting our treasured natural spaces and iconic British wildlife,” she said.
“Natural England must not become a poor relation to Defra. Ministers must ensure the valuable work it does to promote biodiversity is given the priority it deserves.”
Creagh said Gove’s letter had confirmed that one-fifth of the Natural England staff seconded to work on Brexit had been moved away from working on SSSIs, of which there are more than 4,000 – such as Lewes Downs in East Sussex or Hope Valley Meadows in Shropshire.
The environment secretary said that where staff had been transferred from Defra agencies in a way that matched “required efficiency savings in the exporting organisation”, those roles had not been backfilled and would be removed from future structures.
He insisted that “priority roles such as those that are required to enable delivery of statutory responsibilities were being backfilled” through measures such as fixed-term appointments and temporary promotions.
Gove said that when suitable candidates for secondment were being identified, consideration had been given minimising the impact on Natural England’s key performance indicators.
But he conceded: “Secondees’ substantive roles which are not deemed a high priority have been left unfilled and work reallocated or paused for now.”
Gove said the salaries of the transferred officials amounted to “approximately £22m” for a full year and that the Natural England staff had been moved for two-year secondments.