Defra has drawn up plans for an interim secretariat comprised of around 16 full-time civil servants to uphold environmental legislation in the UK, should the UK leave the EU with no deal and before formation of the UK’s proposed Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).
Environment secretary Michael Gove launched draft legislation in December to set up the independent environmental watchdog, the OEP, which will “hold Government and public bodies to account” after Brexit. This will include taking on legal powers of enforcement instead of the European Commission.
Speaking to MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), resources minister Therese Coffey said that “several” of the 16 interim staff would be from Defra.
She said they would be located in offices separate from Defra, with separate IT systems and emails, and the secretariat would have its own website. Coffey said: “I have suggested to the team who will form the secretariat that the new chair will be invited to the post by [the EAC] or Efra [committee] or both.”
Questioned by MPs about the small staffing figure, Coffey said it would “not necessarily [be] fulfilling all the roles that the OEP would”. But Gove agreed it was “a sub-optimal situation”.
Speaking to MRW after the meeting, EAC chair Mary Creagh said: “Clearly, steps and provisions have been made for a no-deal, but that in no way would make up for the numbers of staff that currently deal with environmental law and policy in the Commission.
“The idea that 16 people sitting in a different building is going to fill that gap is for the birds. There is a whole series [of questions] such as what happens to the targets? Who sets the target? Parliament will have to set the targets.”
Regarding the OEP, Gove told the EAC: “I think the key thing with the body is that it need not have an extensive staff…it can be a very effective body without necessarily having the size of staff that an organisation like Natural England or the Environment Agency has to have.”
He envisaged staffing numbers as “anything between 60 and 120 people”. The Commission’s department responsible for EU policy on the environment, the Directorate-General for Environment, currently employs around 500.
Gove added that an indicative budget for the OEP was “in terms of millions…and as much as the chair and board consider appropriate”. His own preference was for its location to be outside London: “I would be very open to it being located in Scotland and I suggested Aberdeen.”
The EAC has been scrutinising how the EU’s environmental principles will be translated across to UK law, and how they will be applied and enforced across the four nations of the UK. It has concerns about the lack of distance between the proposed OEP and Defra and the OEP’s ability to judge the Government.
Creagh told MRW: “As far as it applies to waste, we are looking like we are going to miss our 2020 EU recycling target. It is anybody’s guess as to whether we will be in the EU in 2020, whether we will be in the transitional period and so on, but we are clearly going to have a governance gap if there is a no-deal [on 29 March].”
This story was updated on 22 March to include further quotes from Gove.