It has been revealed that 400 staff have been moved from Natural England, the Environment Agency, Rural Payments Agency, and other Defra agencies to work on Brexit.
A letter published on Thursday (8 November) by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) from Defra Secretary Michael Gove shows what the EAC calls a "raid" on Natural England staff.
The letter follows concerns raised by EAC Chair Mary Creagh MP in September about Natural England’s ability to deliver on its statutory responsibilities such as protecting England’s SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest).
Ms Creagh, Chair of the EAC said: "Preparations for leaving the EU must not get in the way of protecting our treasured natural spaces and iconic British wildlife.
“It is disappointing that Defra has raided staff at Natural England, the organisation responsible for protecting some of the most highly valued wildlife areas in England to prepare for Brexit.
She added: “Natural England must not become a poor relation to Defra. Ministers must ensure the valuable work it does to promote biodiversity is given the priority it deserves.”
Mr Gove's letter confirms that more than 400 EU Exit posts created within the central department and the majority have been filled by staff from four agencies including Natural England and the Environment Agency.
50 staff have been moved from Natural England, 20% of whom had been working on SSSIs.
The letter says that staff reallocations will mean some work which is not related to Brexit would stop. This could include work on maintaining England’s SSSIs. It says that other staff would ‘absorb’ work on SSSIs.
“…roles which are not deemed a high priority have been left unfilled and work reallocated or paused for now," the letter states.
Figures from Natural England have shown a fall over the last 2 years in the proportion of SSSI’s assessed as being in a favourable condition.
Defra has recruited 1,200 people to help the department get through Brexit.
The department has grown more than 65% since the EU referendum, according to a report by think tank Institute for Government.