Michael Gove admits Defra is likely to have to hire thousands of new staff to keep up with Brexit-related planning demands
MPs have expressed concerns the scale of the Brexit task will leave key departments overwhelmed and unable to deal with pressing environmental matters.
The latest warnings came in response to a letter from Environment Secretary Michael Gove, which revealed he expects Brexit to generate 70 work-streams within Defra alone.
The figure, published in a letter to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) that was released yesterday, represents a significant step up on the 43 Brexit-related work streams which the National Audit Office (NAO) predicted for Defra in December 2017. The NAO said the projected 43 work streams would require 1,200 new staff to join the department by March 2018.
The news that Gove believes the number of important Brexit-related issues that require dedicated work streams could rise to 70 has prompted fears amongst MPs on the EAC that Defra will struggle to hire the thousands of additional staff required. There are also fears the department will face a battle to manage business, investor and public confidence in the Brexit process, particularly given the severe budget cuts faced by the department in recent years.
"This letter is the latest evidence of the growing scale and complexity of leaving the EU, which is the biggest administrative and constitutional task since the Second World War," Mary Creagh, chair of the EAC, said in a statement.
"We are concerned by how few of the 'day one' plans have been published and outlined to businesses and investors, who need clarity about our relationship with the EU during the transition and beyond."
She said Gove's letter provided an update on the scale of the Brexit task for Defra, but provided few details on how the department would tackle the challenges it faces. "From chemicals to climate change, huge regulatory questions remain unanswered," she said. "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."
However Gove insisted in the letter that plans are in place for all 'day one' projects and said he is "confident" Defra is focusing its planning on the most complex projects to deliver.
"All projects have risks attached, which will ebb and flow as the projects mature," he added. "The department has been closely monitoring plans and risks and completing regular reviews drive out any blockers to progress," he added.
But serious concerns remain the UK is still unprepared for the scale of the Brexit challenge, particularly with regard to environmental issues.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan yesterday accused ministers of dragging their heels on the creation of a new environmental watchdog to govern and uphold green laws after Brexit, which the government promised to create in its 25 Year Plan for Nature published earlier this year.
"After finally announcing plans to set up this watchdog, the government is stalling yet again," Khan warned. "Their dithering greatly increases the risk of ending up with a body without any teeth which will simply be used as another excuse for ministers' lack of action on tackling the capital's toxic air."
Meanwhile, GreenerUK, a group comprised of 13 environmental NGOs, is concerned the new watchdog will not have the resources it needs to effectively police green rules, particularly given the steep budget cuts to agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency in recent years.
"Without adequate resources the watchdog will undermine the government's pledges on the environment and we will not be able to replace current, vital EU functions that provide the public with the facility to uphold environmental standards," it told the Guardian.
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