Exclusive interview: New Defra perm sec Tamara Finkelstein on Brexit, identity and making the weather
From the storm of no-deal Brexit preparation to the headwinds of regulatory reform, Tamara Finkelstein walked into a squall when she took on the top job at Defra. But she tells Beckie Smith she is determined to create a more hospitable environment
Photo: Baldo Sciacca
“It’s ok, my next appointment isn’t very urgent,” Tamara Finkelstein tells CSW’s photographer as he adjusts a lighting rig and checks his watch. A concerned-looking staffer interjects to say the permanent secretary’s schedule has changed and she’s due to brief the department’s newest minister in six minutes. Just hours earlier, Rebecca Pow was shuffled in to replace newly-promoted work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey after Amber Rudd’s resignation over Brexit. Thankfully, the appointment is just next door, and Finkelstein manages to keep it.
Pow is the ninth minister – including two secretaries of state – Finkelstein has worked with since she took the helm at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in April. If the UK’s departure from the EU had been as on schedule as Finkelstein, she would have arrived just after the UK had left the EU.
Given that 80% of Defra’s work is affected by Brexit, the months following the extension of that departure deadline were perhaps an inopportune time for the department to gain both a new ministerial team and a new perm sec. By 31 October, the UK’s revised departure date, the department must tackle barriers to food exports, develop IT systems and create structures to enforce environmental regulations. In the last three years it has had to wrangle more legislation than ever before, all while preparing to overhaul farm subsidies and seeking ways to boost biodiversity, manage waste and help the UK meet its net-zero emissions target.
Happily for Finkelstein, there are few people as well-acquainted as she is with Defra’s immense Brexit to-do list. After all, she spent a year as the department’s director general for EU exit. There she might have stayed had the perm sec post not opened up when Clare Moriarty moved to the Department for Exiting the European Union.
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These are the shifting sands on which civil servants stand as they undertake the unprecedented task of coordinating Brexit. Since the original 29 March deadline, there has been massive churn among the teams leading departmental preparations. Indeed, Finkelstein’s own successor as Brexit delivery chief has already moved on.
Does this particular example of high turnover concern her? “Well, people are always moving, to be honest. Even as early as January, we were very clear that it was quite likely – whatever happened in April – that there would be movement, because some people had been working on Brexit from the beginning.
“We’ve managed to plan that quite well, so I’m not concerned about that. But there have definitely been challenges for this department, just in terms of the number of people that we’ve brought in over a very swift time,” she says.
By April, there were more than 16,000 civil servants working on Brexit across government, including thousands seconded from their day jobs. Many were stood down after the Article 50 extension, but not all, and some have been called up again as 31 October approaches.
Defra has borrowed around 200 civil servants from the Department for Education through a “buddy” system set up to support ministries with the biggest Brexit workloads, plus a few from the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development. “That has made it very vibrant and diverse, but it definitely has real challenges too,” Finkelstein says.
“I think we should take great pride that we actually moved people from departments. I’ve never seen that before. [DfE perm sec] Jonathan Slater and I hosted a town hall meeting with staff, where he said, ‘This is what we’re doing in government. Please come, your country needs you,’ and 800 people signed up.
“We’ve learned a huge amount from it. And the DfE people who came over have got great experience in terms of their careers and their development.”
Most of the transfers were brought in to staff policy teams and so-called operations centres – modelled on intensive units used in emergencies to “get work done fast”, Finkelstein says. The department has also adopted shift patterns and job shares to enable work to start early and finish late and spread the mental load among staff. “That’s working, but I’m not pretending it’s an easy environment.”
As for the changing political faces at the top of the department, Finkelstein is not giving much away. Asked how she negotiates relationships with incoming ministers, she says – in the pattern of civil service professionalism – that what matters is “listening to how they want to work” and that she’s enjoyed working with all of the ministers she’s encountered in her 27-year civil service career.
Every single one? “Yeah, actually!” She sounds almost as if she’s surprised herself with the revelation. “The politicians I’ve worked for are always deeply motivated by wanting to change stuff and do stuff well. They’re in public service like I’m in public service.”
Growing up, Finkelstein never particularly wanted to work in Whitehall. She studied engineering science at Oxford, but found working for the company that sponsored her degree “didn’t quite scratch that itch”. Casting around for master’s grants, she stumbled upon a now-defunct programme that funded conversion courses for would-be economists in return for a couple of years at the Treasury after graduation.
At that point, Finkelstein says, “I have to admit, I didn’t really know properly what the civil service was. I slightly resented that after doing [the course] I was going to have to stay for at least two years.”
She ended up staying for just over two decades, working on tax and macroeconomic policy and latterly as director of public services. Before that she was private secretary and speechwriter to Gordon Brown, where she once panicked colleagues by putting the then-chancellor’s Budget speech in the emblematic red box (“You don’t actually put it in the box! It could fall out... or anything!”) Now she says the Treasury “runs through me like rock”. The same could probably be said of the second candidate the master’s scheme sponsored that year: Sir Tom Scholar, now the department’s perm sec.
That 22-year stretch was broken up by a few memorable secondments, including setting up the Sure Start centres, which she calls one of her proudest achievements. Then in 2014, she moved to the health department, and in 2017, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Leading MHCLG’s post-Grenfell building safety programme was “an incredibly intense experience and a very emotional experience”. Stepping into the burned-out tower was the hardest moment of her career, she says in a voice that is steady, but only just.
But when she first arrived at that department, Finkelstein says she “didn’t quite get the enormity” of the challenge ahead. The team she set up expected that testing would find “a few” buildings with the same ACM flammable cladding that caused the Grenfell fire to spread. It found 435.
She describes the complacency on building standards that could potentially have prevented the deaths of the 72 people who died at Grenfell as “groupthink”. “That was absolutely the same as the other crises we looked at: they almost all were embedded in that same thing around safety. There were issues around groupthink and people not whistleblowing.”
Her team called on people who had dealt with other crises, including the 1987 Kings Cross fire that killed 31 people. The disaster prompted a huge backlash against London Underground, when it emerged that staff had lacked vital training to deal with it as there had never before been a fatal tube fire.
But as of August, more than two years after the Grenfell tragedy, work to remove ACM cladding had only been completed on a quarter of the buildings identified. Does that make Finkelstein angry?
She insists that “huge progress” has been made, noting that MHCLG didn’t wait until after the public inquiry to commission an independent review, which concluded last year.
“It was clear really early on that it was the most massive task, not just around how quickly people would do it or decide how they were going to pay for it, but even what it requires of the building industry,” she says. Last month MHCLG opened a £200m fund to speed up remediation after some building owners failed to act or tried to offload costs onto tenants.
Finkelstein’s predecessor, Clare Moriarty, once told a select committee that the risk of unforeseen consequences of Brexit kept her “awake at night”. CSW wonders if Finkelstein has had the same disturbed sleep. “Yeah, I mean – look, this is a big job in a whole range of ways. There are huge risks that one knows can’t be fully mitigated and we have to be able to manage that. The one thing you know when you’re preparing for something like this is that you can prepare all you like, but there’ll be something that happens that you didn’t prepare for.”
There is plenty the department can prepare for, though. Finkelstein points out that before the EU referendum, Defra “didn’t do much in the way of big project delivery or big amounts of legislation”. Since then, it has been tasked with passing more Brexit-related statutory instruments than any other ministry. It is also responsible for several larger pieces of legislation – among them the flagship environment, fisheries and farming bills.
Keen to stress the upsides of Brexit, Finkelstein says Defra has gained project management, delivery and trade policy skills using the resources it has been given to prepare. She hopes that will stick.
She says the department has “changed totally” its approach to dealing with its pile of Brexit SIs – 137 altogether. So far, it has passed 126. “We had to work with lawyers, policy and delivery people and ministers in a very different way to do something that looked impossible when we first looked at it.”
“The one thing you know when you’re working on something like Brexit is that you can prepare all you like, but there’ll be something that happens that you didn’t prepare for”
Not everything went smoothly at first, but Defra has adjusted its approach – beefing up teams with extra paralegals and bringing ministers into the operations room to approve details as they’re being hammered out, rather than waiting for a written response. “Doing that, you can cut something to hours that might otherwise have taken a week.”
She hopes this progress will improve how the department handles business-as-usual SIs too. “We were one of the bottom in Whitehall at doing that – sticking to the deadlines we’d given ourselves – so I’m hoping we won’t reverse some of those ways of working, even when we’re not in Brexit mode.”
Finkelstein is speaking to CSW two days into a planned five-week prorogation of parliament, which would later be cut short by the Supreme Court – but not before it had complicated an already tight schedule and delayed several pieces of legislation. Before the shutdown, she had admitted to a committee of MPs that Defra will not be able to pass all the SIs it needs in time for a no-deal Brexit using the normal channels. Instead, she told the concerned-looking panel, it must use an “urgent procedure” to get at least some of the outstanding 11 SIs onto the statute book by 31 October – with parliamentary debates happening afterwards.
While passing SIs that MPs have yet to approve may not be her first choice – in January, Brexit minister Lord Callanan said the government had “no expectation” it would need to – Finkelstein stresses that the EU Withdrawal Act made provision for this urgent procedure “for things that are essential”. “Where that needs to happen, that will happen. But there won’t be that many that need to happen in that way.”
The department isn’t just trying to replicate EU systems post-Brexit. “There are other big things we have to do. I’m very struck by the change we need to make to how we do farm payments, and we’ve managed to not do that well twice before. So I don’t want that to happen again.”
In 2005, the department’s Rural Payments Agency was slow to implement the EU’s latest farm subsidies scheme, delaying payments. Then in 2015, Defra scrapped a £154m IT system to map and process online payments, saying it had “listened intently to farmers” upset about its poor performance.
But Finkelstein is optimistic about the latest attempt, adding that there is now a “reasonable amount of consensus” on subsidies. The government has said payments will be determined not by land size, as they are under the EU system, but will reward farmers for upholding environmental standards. “The last two times we were reforming there were some constraints because we were within the EU. Now we have more freedoms of manoeuvre. But it is a huge change, and big change is hard to deliver.”
The phased changeover is set to begin next year, as long as the agriculture bill is passed in time. The prorogation of parliament had threatened to scupper the bill, but thanks to the Supreme Court judgement it looks set to go ahead.
Finkelstein had initially told MPs the farm subsidies overhaul could only go ahead if the agriculture bill were to pass by spring, but said in September that Defra could “just about incorporate” a longer delay. Summer 2020 would be the “absolute deadline”, she said.
Perhaps there is a certain degree of optimism needed to do Finkelstein’s job – at any rate, there is very little she seems to think her department can’t do.
Before stepping down in August, Defra’s outgoing chief scientific adviser Sir Ian Boyd said the UK couldn’t reach net-zero emissions by 2050 – another of Defra’s policy priorities – “while government is constructed the way it is at the moment”. But Finkelstein thinks it can be done. She says hitting the target will be a “huge task, but one around which there’s huge commitment politically and in the public”.
So while her job is far from easy, Finkelstein isn’t perturbed by the challenges posed by Brexit or anything else. It was, in fact, another quote from Moriarty, delivered at a training conference, that made her think she wanted to be a perm sec: “‘You have to carry the can to make the weather.’ I thought to myself, I think I’m up for carrying the can and I do quite fancy making the weather.”
Finkelstein on… public service and identity
Although she was unfamiliar with the civil service as a young woman, Finkelstein says she always expected to work in some form of public service. Her parents were refugees, and her mother Mirjam, who was imprisoned in Belsen concentration camp with Anne Frank, dedicated much of her life to educating the public about the Holocaust.
“They built a great life here, and both myself and my brothers [Danny, the journalist and peer, and Anthony, the government’s chief scientific adviser on national security] are in public service in different ways. It’s no doubt grounded in that family history and my parents’ commitment and gratitude to this country. That’s a huge driver for me.”
Finkelstein co-sponsors the Civil Service Jewish Network with Matthew Gould, the head of NHSX. At home, she’s “very involved” in her synagogue and community but says it wasn’t until she was asked to sponsor the network that she reflected on the divide between her work and personal life.
“My Jewish life is a very important part of my life and so it’s quite a pleasure to be able to do stuff with the network and to feel you can be yourself in the workplace. Because actually, when I reflected on it, that wasn’t something that was a part of my work identity for quite a long time.”
This is partly because “In our generation, there’s a lot fewer Jewish civil servants,” she says.
The intersection between identity and work has clearly been on her mind, and for good reason. In March, two select committees said Defra needed to attract a more diverse range of candidates to lead its agencies and arm’s-length bodies. Their report followed a recruitment process for the chair of Natural England, in which 91% of applicants were white, 61% were male and none declared a disability.
Finkelstein says Defra, through its Project Race programme, is working to “open up conversations” about diversity – not just about recruitment, but also people’s experiences of working in the department. She admits she and other senior officials had been “really worried about some people’s experiences”, having heard reports of microaggressions and people feeling unwelcome.
Workshops are happening across Defra’s senior civil service, and the department has put Project Race ambassadors in all of its teams. “So there’s a lot that we’re doing. We’ve seen some progress around representation, but we’ve still got a long way to go.” As of June, fewer than one in 10 Defra staff said they were from a black or minority ethnic background – one in four didn’t report their ethnicity – and 1 in 13 senior civil servants was BAME.
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