About 400 staff have been seconded from their roles at Defra’s four main agencies to help boost the department’s Brexit preparations.
In a letter to Mary Creagh MP, who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, Defra secretary Michael Gove confirmed that Defra has recruited more than 2,000 staff to work on EU exit, “including fixed-term appointments, interims and staff redeployment”.
Of these, more than 400 posts have been filled from across the Defra group – the majority coming from Natural England, the RPA, the Environment Agency and the Animal Plant and Health Agency (Apha).
Mr Gove said care was taken to minimise the effect on the agencies’ core functions.
“Priority roles such as those that are required to enable delivery of statutory responsibilities are being backfilled,” he added.
In the case of Natural England – which has lost about 50 staff on two-year secondments – the main work area affected relates to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
In response, Ms Creagh said it was “disappointing” Defra had raided Natural England, “the organisation responsible for protecting some of the most highly valued wildlife areas of England”.
“Preparations for leaving the EU must not get in the way of protecting our treasured natural spaces and iconic British wildlife,” she said.
“Natural England must not become a poor relation of Defra.
“Ministers must ensure the valuable work it does to promote biodiversity is given the priority it deserves.”
Figures from Natural England have shown a fall over the past two years in the proportion of SSSIs assessed as being in a favourable condition, she added.
The news follows a report in the Guardian earlier this week that reveals managers at the Environment Agency were given just 24 hours to name 75 staff to be sent to Defra “as a matter of urgency”.
According to the newspaper, an Environment Agency memo was sent on 22 October, with staff asked to redeploy within a week.
“We realise this is an extremely short deadline,” it said. “However, please do your best as part of our ambition to go the extra mile to help at this challenging time.”
Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron said the call for assistance by Defra “smacks of panic and desperation”.
Defra is responsible for almost one-fifth of all the Brexit-related work streams across government.