Creation of Department for International Trade cost £1.4m, say officials
Transition chief tells MPs the department’s “pioneering” work in digital will help boost the low number of British exporters
A top official at the Department for International Trade has told MPs that the creation of the department following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union cost £1.4m.
Paul McComb, transition programme director at the Department for International Trade, told MPs yesterday that the cost of “machinery of government change” that established the department last July included areas such as branding for the new ministry.
DIT is tasked with drawing up new international trade agreements and a trade and investment policy for Britain and brought together the functions of the former UK Trade & Investment, UK Export Finance and Whitehall’s since-bolstered trade policy function.
The £1.4m cost “will have covered a number of things including branding, there’s always tangential costs to that”, McComb told MPs on the International Trade Select Committee. “It’s a relatively small amount”.
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Previously, the department has confirmed that it paid recruitment companies £1.15m to find senior staff in its first year.
McComb also set out the department’s work to develop new online tools to help increase the number of British businesses trading overseas.
He said the department had brought together as many as 19 separate predecessor websites that claimed to provide export advice. In November 2016 DIT launched great.gov.uk, which brought all that advice together in one place, in an effort to boost the number of British businesses trading overseas, which has remained unchanged at around 11% for more than a decade.
However, he admitted that DIT’s work in this area is hampered by the patchy nature of data on British exporters, which cannot easily be broken down by sector.
McComb, who joined UKTI as managing director of strategy in 2016 before it was absorbed by DIT, said the department’s investment in digital was “really quite pioneering” and that good progress had been made.
“Digital has transformed other bits of government, it’s transformed other industries,” he said, adding that DIT was looking at how it can use technology to connect British companies with overseas export opportunities.
He told MPs that DIT had invested £6.3m in 2016-17 and will be spending a further £4.5m in 2017-18.
Another part of the department’s digital offering will be about improving segmentation, so that products and services can be better targeted at the right businesses.
Companies will be asked to register their interest online in becoming overseas exporters, and can then use the “export readiness assessment” – an online tool.
Responding to a question about whether this shift to online services will meet business needs, McComb said: “It’s genuinely too early to declare any kind of victory in this space.
“What we haven’t done is thrown the kitchen sink at this and said, ‘It’s digital and we’re laying off everyone who did face-to-face’. We’ve kept both going.”
He also said that the number of British businesses that export overseas – which “has been stubborn” at around the 11% mark for the past 10 to 15 years – cannot easily be broken down by sector.
“The data isn’t automatically served up like that,” he said.
“This is certainly one of the things that as a department we want to make serious inroads in – there’s a lot of analysis, there’s a lot of sample data, but there’s not a great deal of caseload data where you can go and reach in and say, ‘Show me companies who are exporting around the world on this sector’.
“It’s certainly not ideal today and I would acknowledge that.”
There are proposals for DIT to take on powers to use some HMRC customs data, and McComb said he hopes the department’s new digital services will also be a rich source of data.
“All Whitehall departments are just data junkies, they do want this information to underpin and drive and shape strategy,” he said, adding, however, that the additional burden placed on businesses was also a factor.
Asked about the department’s use of private sector contractors, McComb said DIT was “quite a leveraged organisation” and had contracts worth £195m with organisations such as British Chambers of Commerce and EY.
The department is able to access external expertise at short notice, and recently it has particularly invested in commercial experts to help it negotiate better value contracts, he added.
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