This week marked the publication by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) of its annual report for the year ending 31 March 2019. It confirms that the department currently has 275 staff vacancies, 85 of which relate specifically to Brexit.
Commenting on this state-of-affairs, Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president Ivor Ferguson said: “The number of vacancies within DAERA, particularly the 85 positions that are vital to the progress and outcome of Brexit, is very concerning. Brexit will have the greatest impact on Northern Ireland and on our farming industry in particular. Our agri-food sector has an annual turnover of £4.5 billion and is more important to the economy in NI than in other parts of the UK.
“We acknowledge DAERA’s reprioritisation of staffing resource to deal with this up until now - although other issues have been scarified in order to do this. However, it is essential that we have all the resources necessary to deal with the implications of Brexit.
“Significant preparations have already been undertaken between DAERA and the industry to deal with the disastrous possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, should it happen, but more still needs to be done.”
“A no-deal outcome resulting in high tariffs to sell into the EU market, lower quality, cheap food imports and a hard border on the island of Ireland, remain the biggest concerns and are ongoing issues regarding Brexit. Therefore, it is more important now than ever to have the capacity to deal with the range of possible outcomes which lie ahead within what is expected to be a very short timescale. The future of our agriculture industry depends on our capability to manage the aftermath of Brexit.”
A DAERA spokesperson told Farming Life that the department remains committed to supporting the flow of agri-food trade into and out of Northern Ireland; supporting contingency planning by the industry while protecting public health, animal and plant health and the environment.
The spokesperson continued: “To achieve those objectives and prepare and manage a ‘no deal’ impact on our stakeholders and the wider public, the Department has established a dedicated group to lead on contingency planning. This group has been focused on progressing contingency plans including ensuring we have the necessary staff, with the required skills and expertise in place to respond to the impact of EU Exit. The recruitment of some technical and professional roles of course presents a unique challenge which we are actively managing.
“The scale of our preparations to be operationally ready for Brexit has had a huge impact on the Department, and it is inevitable that we will face future challenges as indicated in our annual report. However, in order to respond, we are prioritising our resources and seeking to recruit new staff to meet those challenges.
“In the meantime our dedicated staff continue to manage the pressures of maintaining normal business for all our customers.”
Writing in the annual report, DAERA permanent secretary Robert Huey confirmed that Brexit has had a huge impact on the Department in 2018-19 and a significant level of work has been carried out throughout the year to support our preparations in terms of legislation, policy frameworks and operational readiness for European Union (EU) Exit day.
He added: “This includes working with Northern Ireland and UK government departments to minimise potential risks and ensure a consistent approach to EU Exit planning throughout the UK. Strategic priorities for agri-food, fisheries, environment and rural society have also all been agreed with stakeholder groups to inform our future direction and all of this work will continue in 2019-20.”
The annual report confirmed that £290m of Common Agricultural Policy grants were paid out under the Basic Payment, Greening and Young Farmer Schemes of which advance payments were made to 97% of applicants.
Further payments of over £7m were made under Tier 1 of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme and over £3m were made under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. Over 430 full time jobs were also created under the LEADER element of the Rural Development Programme.