Michael Gove has revealed that the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is carrying out a review of which of its agencies to retain after Brexit.
The environment secretary told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee this morning that the review of the department’s landscape is being conducted by Shaun Gallagher, the department’s director general of strategy delivery.
Gove, who was appearing before the committee as part of its probe into Defra’s preparedness for Brexit, said: “We will need to look at the responsibilities of each of the non-departmental public bodies, and review whether or not they need to be extended. Some might be merged.”
And while there are “very good people doing good jobs” within these bodies, he added that there are some “overlaps and potential gaps” that need to be addressed.
Defra’s sponsored NDPBs include the Environment Agency and Natural England.
Pressed on whether this review would result in the consolidation of these organisations, Gove said: “The most important thing is that you have bodies that are fit for purpose.
“We don’t want them to be bloated but we want them to have necessary independence. We don’t want wasteful back offices but the people running them need to feel they have the resources to run independently.
Nodding to controversy last year over concerns that Natural England had lost independence, he said: “Some functions are best discharged at arms length from central government but with ministers being ultimately accountable.”
He also revealed to the committee that 65 staff are currently seconded to Defra from Natural England and 30 from the Environment Agency to carry out Brexit-related work. The number of officials being redeployed from Natural England has risen since last November when Gove informed the Environmental Audit Committee that 50 of its staff had been seconded to work on Brexit for the central department.
Overall, 2,800 staff are working to prepare Defra for Brexit, Gove said.
He said that by the end of this week, all of the necessary statutory instruments required by Defra in the event of a no-deal Brexit will be “live or operational.”
The secretary of state also provided further details on the arrangements for ensuring EU environmental standards are upheld in the UK if it leaves the EU without a withdrawal agreement. In the immediate aftermath of a no-deal Brexit, he said an interim environmental governance commissioner would be appointed with responsibility for monitoring UK compliance with EU environmental law.
He said that the commissioner, who has been selected but not yet announced, will report breaches of the EU’s environmental directives to the Office for Environmental Protection. This is the body, which will not be up and running until 2020, that is being established to take over enforcement of environmental standards from the European Commission after Brexit.
“Anyone who thinks one minute after midnight when we leave the EU that they can breach EU environmental law will find themselves before the courts," Gove said.
During the evidence session, Gove also warned that Defra would be unable to cover some potential costs to employers that would arise in the event of a no-deal Brexit, including the cost of licensing EU nationals to work in UK slaughterhouses.
“There are costs to a no-deal exit that all of us need to contemplate, we can’t cover all costs in a blanket fashion,” he said.
This story was updated at 16:19 on 27 March to reflect that the Rural Payments Agency is not, as previously stated an NDPB but an executive agency