Coronavirus has changed everything. Make sense of it all with the Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing. Sign up now.
Trade secretary Liz Truss refused four times to say Boris Johnson would not scrap the Department for International Trade (DIT).
Appearing before the Commons’ international trade committee, the cabinet minister was pressed on reports that the prime minister plans to get rid of the department, set up in 2016 by Theresa May in the wake of the Brexit vote.
It comes after the PM was accused of using the Covid-19 crisis to rush through sweeping reforms to Whitehall when he announced the Department for International Development (DFID) was to merge with the Foreign Office by September.
Asked three times by the committee’s chair, SNP MP Angus MacNeil, if she had been given reassurances that DIT would not be abolished, she was unable to answer.
“The prime minister is very clear that the Department for International Trade remains and has a lot of important work to do,” she said.
“We know it remains, but how long for? This is what is not clear,” MacNeil replied.
“What is also clear is that we have to speak with one voice internationally, which is why I’m working very closely with the foreign secretary, which is why our trade commissioners are working closely with local ambassadors and high commissioners. And I am focused on getting this job done and realising those opportunities.”
Truss was asked similar questions by former minister Mark Garnier, who said there had been rumours DIT’s top civil servant Antonia Romeo could be moved to another department.
“The rumours that are circulating about changes in the machinery of Whitehall are inevitably going to have an effect on members of staff and staff morale within any department,” the Tory MP said, asking her to address the point and say she will be “standing up for the department and making sure it isn’t rolled into another department or split up”.
Truss said her staff were “doing a fantastic job” and that turnover had dropped from 17% in October to 14% in March.
She added the DfID and Foreign Office merger was “a long time coming” and “makes sense”, while hers was a new area of policy for the UK, adding: “I think the best thing to do with speculation in the press, frankly, is to ignore it rather than winding people up about it.”
The trade secretary also used her appearance to step up her rhetoric on US-UK negotiations for a new trade deal, amid claims Britain could be forced to compromise on food standards.
She said: “We’re not going to rush into a deal and there is no deadline.
“We will be tough in pressing our interests. The US talks a good game about free trade and low tariffs but the reality is that many UK products are being kept unfairly out of their market.
“UK steel has been hit by 25% tariffs due to claims of security issues and our cars have also been threatened, despite the fact we are a close security ally.”
The cabinet minister also said trade restrictions, including a “buy American” procurement policy and “onerous testing regimes”, meant British companies could not access two-thirds of the US market.
“Let me be clear – I am not going to strike a trade deal with the US unless all these points are dealt with,” she said.
Truss said a ban on importing chlorinating chicken was “already in UK law”.
She told MPs: “I want to reiterate that when it comes to food, we will never lower our standards in order to sign a trade deal.
“Contrary to claims in the press, these standards – the ban on chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef – are already in UK law through the Withdrawal Act.
“Not only that but we will not sign a trade deal that leaves our farming industry, with its high animal welfare standards, worse off.
“In fact, the opposite is true. My officials and I are working round the clock to ensure any trade deal we strike has British farmers at its heart and [is] one that British shoppers have confidence in.”
When asked for her three core aims for the US talks, Truss said they included getting rid of tariffs on industrial goods such as cars, ceramics and steel; prioritising data, digital and financial market access; and breaking down barriers barring British agricultural products, such as lamb, from being sold to the States.