Environment secretary Andrea Leadsom has defended staff cuts at Defra as she fielded questions from MPs.
The Efra select committee asked Leadsom, appointed in July, what her priorities were for her tenure.
She repeatedly said “delivering a superb Brexit” would be her focus, also mentioning climate change adaption, marine conservation including microbeads, increasing food exports and flood protection.
Labour politician Angela Smith asked Leadsom (pictured above) about the effect that 18% staff cuts since 2010-11 could have on her ability to achieve these ambitions.
Leadsom said: “The transformation, as we call it within Defra, is about making us a leaner and fitter unit. Yes, there have been reductions, but we have also increased our IT capabilities. We’ve combined back offices, we’ve tried to become much more customer-focused.
“It’s about becoming a more effective and leaner team. At the policy end, where the expertise lies and the capacity for the Brexit work lies, we absolutely do have the capability.”
She later said she believed there was room for further efficiency savings to be made within the department.
Defra permanent secretary Claire Moriarty (pictured below) was asked about civil servants’ motivation within the department, saying the latest audit from October 2015 showed a fall in enthusiasm.
Moriarty said the results were released shortly after she had arrived but she was “very disappointed” at the time: “I knew when I arrived it had been a period of turbulence. I have been trying to give people a visible sense of leadership.”
She said the next ‘people survey’ would be released in November, where she hoped to see an improvement.
Leadsom added that Brexit had “unleashed an enthusiasm” from Defra civil servants to think more creatively about the department’s policy.
While her department had not prepared for Brexit before the referendum, she said, it began doing so “the day after”.
Defra had undertaken a month of work on Brexit by the time Leadsom took up her role, she said, and was now ”in the top three departments in terms of preparedness”.
Leadsom was questioned by several panel members on the upcoming 25-year environment plan, for which Leadsom said a framework would be published in the next few months.
She said a “huge amount of work” had been done on it before the EU referendum but the UK now has the opportunity to develop specific environmental policies.