Where have all the agri-food policy experts gone?

Gone from Defra, every one? Not quite, it seems, but many had by the end of 2019.(1)

Last week, I stumbled across this fascinating 2021 interview with Clare Moriarty, Permanent Secretary at the Department of for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs between August 2015 and April 2019, one in the Brexit Archives by UK in a Changing Europe series.

I’d been told by an independent senior advisor on agri-food matters to the Government that Defra no longer had people who knew about food matters, agriculture in particular. A few recent graduates, keen on a career in the civil service, told me they and their friends with similar aspirations, had decided not to do so because of Brexit.

Would Clare Moriarty illuminate whether reality reflected these anecdotal accounts? Had Gove’s assertion pre-Brexit that Britons have had enough of experts borne fruit?

These bullet points about Defra staffing, direct quotations from Clare Moriarty, suggest so:

  • Defra had virtually no project delivery muscle before Brexit. It wasn’t a department that did project execution. It did policy, it did negotiations. It did crisis and incident response. It has the tiniest bit of commercial projects and major projects. So we were growing all of that from scratch . . .
  • I think, generally speaking, people were keen to come and work in Defra because it had become a sexy, exciting Brexit place to be.
  • We got a lot of people in from academia, and a certain amount from the private sector, and quite a lot of people from the voluntary sector.
  • I remember walking around Nobel House, and realising that the average age of the Department had suddenly gone down to about 22.
  • For at least two years, we were recruiting at 1,300 a year, to a Department that was only 2,000 or so.
  • We were more successful than we could ever have dreamed, in terms of getting resources, but we were also running hot. Particularly, the deep subject matter expertise in which Defra specialises was absolutely vital, and it was, in some cases, stretched quite thin.

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(1) Here’s hoping that Defra has successfully recruited experts in the last couple of years.

Featured image photos by Steph Gray on flickr here.

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