DEFRA staff numbers up 65%, but can it cope with Brexit?

MPs have raised concerns that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), is struggling as Brexit-related workloads snowball across Whitehall.

In a letter to the House of Commons environmental audit committee, the environment secretary Michael Gove said his department has identified “43 work streams related to our March 2019 readiness for EU Exit”. However, this is likely to increase to 70, he explained.

Gove also confirmed his team “has plans” for all “day one” projects – that is, readiness for the first day outside the EU. However, he didn’t provide any detail as to how many, or what they are.

In the recent Spring Statement DEFRA was allocated £310m in 2018-19 to prepare for Brexit. In December 2017 the National Audit Office reported that the department would need to hire 1,200 new staff by March 2018 to work on 43 Brexit-related work streams.

Earlier this month, the Institute for Government think tank reported that DEFRA’s headcount had rocketed 65% since the June 2016 referendum.

However, the EAC is concerned that the department cannot deal with the growing scale and complexity of leaving the EU.

“From chemicals to climate change, huge regulatory questions remain unanswered,” said the committee’s chair Mary Creagh. “DEFRA and its agencies have lost almost 5,000 staff since 2010, leaving them struggling to cope with Brexit.

We have concerns about the department’s capability to deliver a growing amount of Brexit-related work, and the cost of hiring new staff,” she added.

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