Gove confirms Defra set for 70 Brexit workstreams

MPs have raised concerns about Defra's capability to deliver environmental protections amid an escalating amount of resources dedicated to Brexit-related tasks.

The number of Brexit-related workstreams at Defra is set to grow from 43 to around 70 as the department brings together preparations for a no-deal scenario and longer-term work triggered by Brexit.

This was confirmed in a letter to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) from Defra Secretary Michael Gove, who said that the workstreams will cover a range of activities, from the import control system, to chemicals frameworks.

The letter claims that plans are in place for all “Day one” projects post-Brexit, but details are not provided on the scope or scale of these projects.

MPs suggest that a lack of clarity on Brexit plans will be harmful to businesses and investors. They also raise concerns about a potential staff shortage at Defra, which has suffered from severe job losses in the past eight years.

EAC Chair Mary Creagh said: “We are concerned by how few of the ‘day 1’ plans have been published and outlined to businesses and investors, who need clarity about our relationship with the EU during the transition and beyond.

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

In December 2017, the National Audit Office reported that Defra would need to hire 1,200 new staff by March 2018 to work on the 43 Brexit-related workstreams.

“We have concerns about the Department’s capability to deliver a growing amount of Brexit-related work, and the cost of hiring new staff,” Creagh said.

Ministerial ‘dithering’

The letter was published on the same day that Sadiq Khan accused ministers of stalling over the creation of a new post-Brexit environmental watchdog.

The London Mayor urged the Government to stop “dithering” on setting up a properly funded enforcement agency after Brexit.

“With a new Environment Act in place to refresh our outdated legislation, create a legal right to clean air and establish a fully independent and well-resourced watchdog,” Khan said.

“After finally announcing plans to set up this watchdog, the Government is stalling yet again. 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.”

This comes as the Greener UK coalition of environmental groups have warned that protections to wildlife, water and air quality are under threat because of budget cuts at green-related organisations over the past eight years.

The Environment Agency has had cuts of 55% from its budget for environmental protection between 2010/11 and 2016/17, while Natural England has seen cuts of 60% over the same period.

George Ogleby

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