Defra has been quietly ramping up its no-deal Brexit planning over the past six weeks, according to its top civil servant.
Clare Moriarty, the department’s permanent secretary, made the remarks when giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Defra’s Brexit preparedness.
MPs on the committee chose to examine the preparations in the wake of a National Audit Office (NAO) report which found the risk of Defra failing to deliver all of its Brexit tasks in the event of a no-deal scenario was ‘high’.
Ms Moriarty said: “We have been fast-tracking our contingency planning for the last five or six weeks.
“Over the summer, as it emerged that clarity [on the UK’s future relationship with the EU] might well not be as early as October, we realised some of our plans just could not wait.
“In a lot of consultation with Ministers, we have really stood up our no-deal preparations. We brought forward contingency plans and put them into practice.
“We have stood up two new directorates, one for preparedness and response and one for business readiness and engagement.”
Other accelerated planning Defra is working on includes recruiting new plant health inspectors and people to manage an increase in the number of export health certificates issued, which are needed to allow products of animal origin to leave the country.
The department recruited 1,307 people in 2017-18, with 51 per cent of those staff on fixed-term appointments, mostly for two years.
It has also relied heavily on consultants to deliver its Brexit projects, paying PwC £6.7 million and Boston Consulting Group £9.5 million.
Over the course of the 2018-19 financial year, Defra plans to hire another 1,400 people.
During the PAC hearing, Tamara Finkelstein, the department’s director general for Brexit delivery, was challenged on the number of new graduates being hired who have ‘no experience’ of Defra, policy or project delivery.
Ms Finkelstein defended the recruitment process, saying good induction and training was provided and some of the jobs were ‘really well-suited’ to people straight out of university, but added not everyone joining Defra was a new graduate.
She also said the department was working hard to identify exactly where consultants were needed with a view to keeping costs down.