Defra is to assess its arms-length agencies after Brexit in a move that could see the Environment Agency merged with Natural England.
Environment secretary Michael Gove told the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 27 March that Defra’s director general for strategy delivery Shaun Gallagher would lead the review.
Asked if the review could result in some trimming or merging of agencies, Gove replied: “In other Government departments I have been responsible for closing some NDPBs [non-departmental public bodies]”.
The NDPBs under Defra include the Environment Agency and Natural England, but the Rural Payments Agency, which is an executive agency, was also mentioned.
Gove said: “There are very good people doing very, very good jobs but there is an element of overlap, and one or two people might argue potential gaps that we need to address.
“The most important thing is that you have bodies that are fit for purpose. So a critical question is that you don’t want them to be overstaffed and bloated but you want them to have necessary independence.
“You don’t want them to have wasteful back offices, but you also want to make sure that the people running them feel they have the resources to run them independently.”
Gove told the committee that 55 people have been seconded from Natural England to work on Brexit and 30 seconded from the EA. In total, 2,800 people have been taken on by Defra to work on Brexit.
Concerns have been raised that the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – aimed at safeguarding environmental standards – may not be in place for Brexit day, particularly in a no-deal situation. Gove told the committee that interim arrangements to enforce environmental laws were in place.
An interim environmental commissioner has been selected whose appointment will be announced shortly, said Gove. He or she will be responsible for monitoring compliance with environmental law and will put these cases to the OEP once it is set up.
Gove said: “EU law remains in place and anyone who thinks that, a minute after midnight after we leave the EU in a no deal scenario, that they could break the EU law would find themselves before the courts.”
The OEP will apply to England and probably Northern Ireland. However, the committee asked whether devolved governments in Scotland and Wales have the capacity and resources to develop similar organisations themselves.
Gove replied: “Yes, and if they have any reason for feeling they need more resources and capacity, then we will work with them to provide that.”
Concerns were also raised by the committee about the speed with which the statutory instruments – transcribing EU law into UK legislation – were being passed without the usual level of scrutiny.
By the end of this week, all such statutory instruments under Defra’s remit will have been passed or will be operational, Gove told the committee.