The Brexit process has had a major impact on the way government is organised, and it has transformed one department, Defra. While much of this change has been beneficial, the pace of it has brought a number of challenges which should be addressed.
Brexit has become core Defra business
It was clear from the outset that Brexit would change the focus, priorities and institutional shape of Defra, as around 1,200 EU laws relate to the department and nearly all of its responsibilities are framed by EU legislation. The spotlight has also been on the department as 80 per cent of the UK’s environmental laws emanate from the EU. Embedding these within our domestic statute book is of considerable public interest.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Defra’s issues have dominated the Brexit legislative programme, with major bills on agriculture, fisheries and environmental principles and governance (the latter has expanded into a broader Environment Bill, which was the flagship bill in the October 2019 Queen’s speech). New legislation was also promised by the previous government on animal welfare. For a department that has only passed two pieces of primary legislation since 2010, this has required a remarkable shift in legislative capability.
Defra has also had the lion’s share of Brexit-related statutory instruments to pass which will enable the UK to have a functioning statute book on exit day. A high volume of secondary legislation had to be passed (122 instruments have been passed in seven months). At times, parliament has struggled to cope with the volume and complexity of the programme, and concern has been expressed at key moments, such as the motion of regret on REACH chemicals legislation.
How has Defra changed?
An obvious difference is size. In 2018, the department had grown by more than 65 per cent since the EU referendum. But Defra now feels and acts like a different, not just a bigger, department. It has become more assertive in Whitehall and the appointment of political heavyweight Michael Gove as secretary of state did not seem out of place.
This has been helped by a huge surge in public interest in what Defra does. It’s become clearer during the Brexit process that the departmental agenda is more in tune with public views than any other department, touching and shaping our lives and wellbeing in many ways.
Nowhere is this more evident than now, with the environment featuring strongly in all the party manifestos and with the staging of a dedicated TV leaders’ debate on climate and nature. These show that, whichever party comes to power next week, the environment, and its sponsor department, can be expected to remain a high priority for government. Both the main parties have made major funding pledges, with the Conservatives committing to prioritise environment in the next Budget and Labour announcing a series of commitments in its Plan for Nature.
Major Brexit related projects, such as the design and delivery of environmental land management schemes and the setting up of the Office for Environmental Protection, have meant that Defra is a highly attractive employer for those with operational and project delivery skills, and not just those with policy expertise. It is more organised, and project planning has been revolutionised, thanks, in part, to a more enlightened approach to recruitment and dedicated training programmes. Recent joiners from civil society and non-traditional recruitment routes, public servants on secondment, and a new contingent of consultants and contractors, have helped to create a more nimble and broadly skilled departmental workforce.
Defra needs to embed new talent and effective processes
So far so good, but the flipside of a rapidly growing, temporary and contingent workforce can be a loss of institutional memory and continuity. The constant churn of staff and restructuring can be disruptive to providing a consistent interface with stakeholders. It could also lead to new recruits thinking that these exceptional times have become the norm. That would not be helpful on stakeholder engagement for example, as corners have been cut on policy development to meet the exacting deadlines of the Brexit process. This has been the case on secondary legislation. The sooner the policy development cycle can return to timescales that allow full engagement, the better.
The rapid influx of new staff could also inadvertently create a retention issue. The civil service is constantly changing and people move on, but is the department taking the opportunity to make its newly recruited talent permanent?
There have been pockets of innovative engagement with stakeholders but this is not yet embedded across all teams. Approaches that put stakeholders at the heart of Defra’s policy development and major project delivery should be integral to the open, outward facing culture which successive permanent secretaries have pledged to sustain.
Lack of resource on chemical safety is going to be a serious issue
Also, some projects are suffering from a lack of resourcing. The approach that has been outlined for chemical regulation is a case in point. The functions of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), an independent body with 500 statutory members of staff and a yearly budget of €100 million, to regulate tens of thousands of chemicals, will be taken over by a division of the Health and Safety Executive, with oversight from Defra.
Given its remit of workplace safety, the HSE is not necessarily the natural home for ensuring chemicals are adequately assessed and used safely throughout the economy, and will not harm either public health or the environment. Current plans will see the HSE take on an additional 35-40 staff to regulate a similar number of chemicals as its EU counterpart. Its budget will be just £13 million a year. Recruiting even this level of staff with the requisite knowledge could prove challenging. It took ECHA five years to reach the necessary staffing levels to adequately regulate the chemicals in use across Europe.
While departmental culture does not emanate from a single source, leadership from the top matters. Whoever becomes the new secretary of state will inherit a department with a large to do list, a high public profile, a committed and skilled workforce and an engaged and challenging stakeholder community. If they are able to build on recent momentum and instil a new sense of purpose, ensuring that morale is maintained and strong relationships endure with sister departments, it will go a long way to helping Defra to meet the challenges to come and create meaningful and long lasting policy change for the good of us all.
[Image courtesy of Steph Gray on Flickr]