Brexit has broken a lot of things – two political parties, societal cohesion and my will to live, to name a few – but are we about to add DEFRA’s arm's length bodies to the list?
It seems possible. Yesterday, ENDS reported environment secretary Michael Gove’s comments to backbench MPs earlier this week about a review of DEFRA’s non-departmental bodies after Brexit. Gove said he will look at and “review whether or not the responsibilities need to be extended” adding that “some might be merged”. However, the scope of the review - and whether it is in fact a review - is not clear. The department, ENDS understands, does not consider the exercise to amount to an official review, rather a named director-general leading a team “considering what the future landscape of DEFRA should be”, including its arms-length bodies.
What we do know is that the Environment Agency (EA) and Natural England (NE) have suffered from extreme cuts to staff and budgets over the years, leaving them vulnerable to criticism and in some cases unable to undertake the work they are tasked with. Natural England has had its budget slashed by more than half (almost £160m) since 2008/09, with more cuts planned next year. With biodiversity targets being missed wherever you look, it’s clear something needs to change.
While Gove ponders the existing agencies, he’s also busy summoning new green governance bodies into being. The new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), set out in the draft provisions of the Environment Bill, won’t be in place in time for any of the current mooted Brexit dates so Gove has set up an interim body to record breaches of environmental law until the OEP is ready. The interim secretariat will be functional from 30 March and will comprise 16 civil servants, including a commissioner who has already been appointed but not yet named. At a committee meeting earlier this week, environment minister Therese Coffey said the secretariat “will not be located in DEFRA” and will be at a remove from the department. “The IT is separate, they have separate emails, the website is ready,” she said.
Defra Statement: Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill 2018
22 Dec 2018
Such a small team would be hard pressed to replicate the functions of the European Commission, so the OEP is being given powers to retrospectively take action, dating back to Brexit Day, “ensuring there is no period of time during which government actions cannot be held to account by an enforcement agency”, according to Gove.
If all goes to Gove’s plan, the withdrawal agreement will be passed and the OEP will be up and running in 2020, before the end of the transition period. During any implementation period the UK would still be subject to European law and the supervision of the European Court of Justice.
But these plans remain just that until Brexit is resolved. Who knows what the final landscape will look like? One thing’s for sure - it will look different, despite DEFRA’s efforts to play it down. The department has shown its hand a number of times, not least when advertising at the beginning of the year for a chief operating officer to “transform the DEFRA group and prepare it for a post-Brexit world”.