Environment secretary Michael Gove has been accused of "poaching" staff from an agency responsible for protecting England's most precious landscape and wildlife areas in order to prepare his department for Brexit.

In a letter to a Commons committee, the cabinet minister disclosed that 50 staff from Natural England had been transferred on a two-year basis to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) into EU exit-related roles.

It comes after it was claimed last month the nature watchdog had already been "systematically gutted" by central government, with ministers reducing the amount of funding provided to monitor natural landscapes and wildlife habitats in England.

Mr Gove added in his correspondence with the Environmental Audit Committee that his department had recruited over 2,000 staff to work on Brexit-related issues, including 400 posts filled "via loan or secondment" from the Environment Agency and Natural England. 

He continued: "When identifying candidates for secondment, consideration was given to ensuring the potential impact on Natural England's KPIs was minimised. Secondees' substantive roles which are not deemed high priority have been left unfilled and work reallocated or paused for now.

But Mary Creagh, the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee and Labour MP, said that preparations for Brexit "must not get in the way of protecting our treasured natural spaces and iconic British wildlife".

She continued: "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.

"Natural England must not become a poor relation to Defra. Ministers must ensure that valuable work it does to promote biodiversity is given the priority it deserves."

Green MP Caroline Lucas also criticised the government for "poaching" Natural England staff, adding it is "the latest in a string of cutbacks that are decimating the agency". 

She added: "Since 2010 ministers have slashed funding for its work on Sites of Special Scientific Interest by 55 per cent - leaving our wildlife exposed.

"This letter proves Michael Gove's promise of a 'Green Brexit' is pure bluster. It's vital ministers reverse cuts to Natural England's funding immediately and expand its specialist team to protect and restore our neglected environment." 

A Defra Group spokesperson replied: “Over 80 per cent of Defra’s agenda is affected by Brexit and as a result a number of staff from across the Defra group are now supporting our comprehensive programme of work.

“However, we are clear this must not impact our commitment to protecting our environment and the vital work of Natural England in protecting our natural spaces and wildlife.”

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The action from Mr Gove follows a highly-critical report of his department earlier this year, warning that key elements of Defra's Brexit preparations would not be ready by March 2019 when the UK is set to leave the European Union. 

"Defra does not have a clear vision either for the new services and functions it has to introduce or for the organisation as a whole post-EU Exit, and it therefore has limited understanding of future costs," the report from the National Audit Office (NAO) stated.

Areas highlighted as being at risk by the report included £17bn of chemical exports to the EU, Britain's ability to protect it fishing waters, and farm exports to dozens of countries.



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