Natural England staff ‘poached’ by Defra for Brexit preparations

“Preparations for leaving the EU must not get in the way of protecting our treasured natural spaces and iconic British wildlife.” 400 staff from environment bodies, including 50 from Natural England, have been seconded to Defra for EU Exit work, leading to fears that the protection of England’s natural environment is playing second fiddle to Brexit. 

The rolling hills of England
The rolling hills of England
Kate Dickinson

400 staff at state environmental bodies have been transferred to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in order to help with Brexit preparations.

The action was described as a “raid” by Mary Creagh MP, Chair of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), responding to a letter from Environment Secretary Michael Gove. 

The letter, published today (8 November), confirms that more than 400 staff from four government agencies – Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Rural Payments Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Agency – have been moved to Defra to work in EU Exit posts. These agencies are all ‘Arm’s Length Bodies’ or ALBs, meaning they are sponsored by and aligned with the work of Defra and staff can be moved between them via loan or secondment.

As of the end of September 2018, Defra had recruited more than 2,000 staff to work specifically on Brexit; it has the most Brexit workstreams of all government departments, dealing with a vast range of policies that are currently covered by EU law including agriculture, fishing, the import and export of produce. In October, Defra admitted it was still short of 1,400 staff required to deal with the vast amounts of work in this area.

Creagh expressed concerns specifically that the capability of Natural England to carry out its work protecting the country’s 4,126 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) would be compromised by the number of staff being seconded to Defra. Around 50 Natural England staff have been moved to Defra on two-year secondments, 13 of whom were spending more than 50 per cent of their time working on SSSIs.

Figures from Natural England suggest that in the last two years, the proportion of SSSIs deemed in a ‘favourable condition’ has fallen. In addition, Parliamentary questions tabled last month by EAC member and Green MP Caroline Lucas revealed that ministers have cut funding for Natural England’s monitoring of SSSIs by 55 per cent since 2010. A previous Parliamentary question revealed that 47 per cent of SSSIs have not been examined in the last six years.

Creagh said: “Preparations for leaving the EU must not get in the way of protecting our treasured natural spaces and iconic British wildlife. It is disappointing that Defra has raided staff at Natural England, the organisation responsible for protecting some of the most highly valued wildlife areas in England to prepare for Brexit.
“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.”

‘Michael Gove's promise of a 'Green Brexit' is pure bluster’

Gove stated in his letter to Creagh that the work of those Natural England employees on SSSIs had been ‘passed to others to absorb into their workplans’. However, he also said that some roles ‘not deemed a high priority have been left unfilled and work reallocated or paused for now’, and that other roles within the ALBs would be removed from future structures in order to make ‘efficiency savings’. Defra is having to deal with £147 million in cuts over 2017/18 and 2018/19, as well as a further £100 million over the following two years, cuts that are clearly filtering down to the department’s associated bodies. 

Lucas commented: “The government's poaching of Natural England staff for Brexit work is the latest in a string of cutbacks that are decimating the agency that looks after irreplaceable habitats and beautiful landscapes.

"Since 2010 ministers have slashed funding for its work on SSSIs by 55 per cent – leaving our wildlife exposed. This letter proves Michael Gove's promise of a 'Green Brexit' is pure bluster. It’s vital ministers reverse cuts to Natural England’s funding immediately and expand its specialist team to protect and restore our neglected environment.”