Tamara Finkelstein starts our interview with an apology. She is actually only a few minutes late but as Permanent Secretary of Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and with the Brexit transition deadline looming, she is extraordinarily busy, to the extent that our (virtual) meeting had to be rescheduled three times.
Nevertheless, as someone who leads a department of 3,500 staff, 80 per cent of whose agenda is affected by Brexit, she appears relaxed and in a convivial mood. Described as “an outstanding public servant” by Michael Gove when she was appointed to her current role eighteen months ago, she has worked for the Civil Service for over 25 years and in the 2020 New Year Honours, was awarded a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) for her services to the public sector.
By the time you read this, Britain will have left the EU, with a trade deal in place, but when we speak all is mired in uncertainty. Defra has been preparing for multiple scenarios for a long time, she says. “The truth is, for a lot of what we deal with, whether we get a free trade agreement or not doesn’t impact. Many things just change by virtue of being a third country, such as the way in which we export some of our food and so on. So, we’ve been preparing for that and trying to prepare businesses too for a while.” She does not expect any disruption to the delivery flow of kosher meat, she says, a detail later verified by her office which added that the UK’s own kosher meat production will not be affected by the transition.
But Defra’s planning has, inevitably, been affected by the pandemic. “Obviously, Covid was an unexpected extra,” she says with a wry smile. Wherever possible, colleagues shifted to working effectively from home, but she points out there are parts of the Defra group for whom that was not an option, such as those operating in labs or people who prepare or mend flood defences. Finkelstein is clearly proud of how her colleagues have risen to the challenges of the past year, “However, the impact on people’s well-being has definitely been significant,” she says. “We’ve done all the things to connect people, to make them feel part of the team, part of a wider community. But with the volume of work there is to do, the detachment from the everyday office environment takes its toll.”
“Personally, I have my good days and my bad,” she admits, recalling that around April there was a day when she received three bereavement notices in her inbox from her synagogue. Although she did not know the people well, it affected her. “You then have to go into this mad day with that [on your mind]. I think it’s been hard for everybody.”
One noticeable by-product of Covid has been a behaviour change in the public’s use of green space. “We are very keen to try and capitalise on that,” Finkelstein says. “In fact, we’ve got some money for our national parks and areas of outstanding beauty and some of that can help support greater access.” There has been investment in trying to encourage more walking and cycling, she explains, including the creation of new, safer cycle lanes and more spaces for bikes at train stations. “The way you see it in Holland, where there are bike stacks.”
Defra’s work on the environment is a, “very, very significant part of what we do,” she says. “We have an Environment Bill going through parliament which puts in law rules for developers to pay for creating habitats if they damage existing ones (biodiversity net gain) and also sets up an independent body to ensure public bodies are held to account on obeying environmental law.”
2021 will be an important international year for the UK. The country will be hosting the global UN climate change conference known as COP26 which was postponed from November this year, and takes the presidency of the G7, as well as trying to make an impact at the UN biodiversity conference in China. “There is going to be a track at COP that is about engaging religious leaders, including rabbis, in trying to make COP a success,” explains Finkelstein. “I think our work on improving the environment is very resonant with Jews, particularly the concept of tikkun olam, what we do to protect and repair the world.”
In addition to working to meet the demands of Brexit, Defra has been preparing for new opportunities that will arise from the UK having its own policies, she says, such as the passing of the Agriculture and the Fisheries Acts — the first for 70 and 40 years respectively. “In agriculture, we are replacing CAP (the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy) with a new system where we incentivise farmers and landowners to do things that improve the environment, for example manage the soil in a way that reduces carbon emissions.” Opportunities such as these are important, she believes, and can make a difference.
A career in the civil service had not been her intention but following a degree in engineering at Oxford University, Finkelstein worked briefly as an engineer before applying to do an MA in economics. She needed funding and came across the Cadet Economist Scheme at the Civil Service, the quid pro quo for which was a two-year stint at the Treasury. “At the time, I remember thinking that was quite a commitment.” She got in and began working at the Treasury as an economist and was “hooked.”
Since then, she has worked in a number of other government departments on policy and delivery in health and children’s services including as Deputy Head of Sure Start and leading
the Building Safety Programme in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Prior to her current post, she was Director General for EU Exit Delivery at Defra.
She did once consider doing something else. “There were these head hunters around the Treasury in the 90s and I went to have a conversation with one about a job in a bank. After a bit, she said, ‘I don’t think you’re that interested,’ and when I asked why, she said, “because we’ve been talking for 20 minutes and you haven’t asked me how much it pays,” Finkelstein recalls, laughing. “It hadn’t occurred to me, to be honest, but it would now!”
Finkelstein has worked with many ministers and has found that almost all of them are in it for public service, as, obviously, is she. “I’ve always found the relationship to be quite straightforward in that ministers and civil servants are generally there to make things better for the citizen. I’m there to support ministers in delivering their agenda, and it’s always been really, really exciting.”
She describes her parents as influential in her commitment to public service. On receiving her CBE, she referred to “owing them everything.” Her mother, Mirjam was a Holocaust survivor and educator and her father, Ludwik, a distinguished scientist. They were both refugees and had a huge love for this country, she says. “The freedom and opportunity that they had here was so important to them.” Her brothers — Daniel the journalist and Tory peer and Anthony, the government’s chief scientific adviser on national security — are also public servants, albeit in different ways. “I’ve no doubt that it comes from our family history and my parents’ commitment and gratitude to this country.”
In the last year, there has been much debate about civil service reform, with several senior civil servants, including permanent secretaries, resigning or being forced out. Is development and change necessary, I ask. “The vast majority of people, from top to toe, think we need to continue to change, evolve and improve,” she replies. “Discussions have ranged from whether people should stay in posts for longer and develop greater expertise or should we have a better geographic footprint and be more representative of the public that we serve. These are things which we all very much agree and want to make progress on.”
Finkelstein is in no doubt that the civil service is a good career for young Jews. There are many opportunities to do great things, she says enthusiastically. She currently co-sponsors the Civil Service Jewish Network with Matthew Gould, CEO of NHSX, which was set up by “loads of fantastic young Jews who came with their youth movement experience.”
Being Jewish is intrinsic to who she is, but it was only on reflection she realised it had not been part of her work identity earlier in her career.
“This is partly because in my generation, there are fewer Jewish civil servants,” she thinks. “People didn’t [talk about it].” Her Jewish practice is key to her resilience. “I don’t work on a Friday night and I participate in a Zoom service on Shabbat. So, even when things are completely crazy, there’s a punctuation to my week.”
With a full professional and communal life — she is an active member and former chair of New North London Synagogue and a trustee of Norwood — what does she do to unwind? “I walk, I’m in a book club and I have a women’s group that started not long after I left university. So, I like to see people and, in previous times, enjoy cooking copiously for friends and family.” She and husband Michael Isaacs, who runs a branding agency, have three children, aged between 21 and 15.
Our time is almost up and Finkelstein is now late for her next meeting but before she goes, she muses about her time as chair of NNLS. “I learned huge amounts — about how you try to build communities and how you make a big organisation feel small and accessible for people. I’m trying to take what I learnt from that into how I run Defra.”