DIT has made progress in improving capacity for trade deals, says NAO

But department needs to ensure agreements are delivering “real benefits”, watchdog warns
The National Audit Office. Photo: Matt Brown/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Tevye Markson

14 Dec 2021

The Department for International Trade has made significant progress in improving its capacity to negotiate multiple trade agreements, the a National Audit Office has found.

However, the public-spending watchdog said the department still has work to do to ensure the deals are delivering “real benefits”.

After leaving the EU, the UK is now responsible for its own international trade policy for the first time in almost 50 years. The NAO’s Progress with trade negotiations report says headcount boosts have contributed to DIT’s improving situation, following staff shortages earlier in the Brexit process.

According to the report, DIT has increased the number of staff supporting trade negotiations from 119 officials in 2016 to 521 in 2021.

The NAO says DIT has also worked with other departments to set up effective governance and project management arrangements, develop its capability and agree a trade negotiations plan.

But the report also says the department should bring together its trade strategy in one place to help to clarify how the government's international trade ambitions “will help it achieve domestic and wider policy objectives”.

NAO head Gareth Davies said DIT had built its capacity to “lead a challenging and intense programme of trade negotiations” to a tight timeframe.

“It now needs to ensure that the deals it is pursuing deliver real benefits to businesses, consumers and the UK economy,”he said.

“It should provide greater transparency of objectives, make best use of stakeholder views, and ensure there is enough focus on implementing the deals already secured.”

The department has now successfully agreed 36 of the 39 trade deals the UK was previously party to when it was in the EU, including a deal with Japan.

However, the NAO said the speed and intensity of the negotiations “puts pressure on resources across government” and “compresses the time available for analysis to support decision making and for consultation with parliament, stakeholders and the wider public”.

There is also a risk that, by pursuing multiple new deals, the government will not allocate enough resources for implementing the deals already secured, the NAO added.

The watchdog said DIT should work with other departments to develop a clear plan for how it will implement and promote each new free-trade agreement and ensure it learns from each negotiation.

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