The Department for International Trade’s focus on hiring civil servants from within Whitehall above recruiting external expertise is contributing to the disparity between the negotiating prowess of the UK and other non-EU states ahead of Brexit, an investigation has suggested.
An analysis of the list of attendees at the first meeting of the US-UK Trade Working Group in July revealed that trade secretary Liam Fox had an entourage of 27 officials, the majority from the Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the European Union, none of whom had “direct experience of negotiating trade deals”.
Meanwhile the US delegation, led by trade representative Robert Lighthizer who has negotiated at least 24 bilateral international agreements, was made up of 77 officials, of which 20 have been directly involved in trade negotiations in the past, according to the analysis.
Greenpeace investigation team Unearthed, which obtained the list under the US Freedom of Information Act, said that the “lack of experienced trade negotiators appears to be the result of a conscious DIT policy to recruit from within the UK civil service”.
Civil Service World reported last year on decisions around the trade department’s expansion – Oliver Griffiths, who was leading DIT’s work on post-Brexit resourcing and attended the UK-US trade talks, told MPs that his preference was to build trade policy expertise rather than buy it in from outside Whitehall.
“Our focus on recruitment to date has been almost exclusively from Whitehall,” he said.
But Jill Rutter, Brexit programme director at the Institute for Government, told CSW that there was “no real substitute” for experience, and that the civil service must hire some trade negotiators with directly relevant experience.
“You don’t necessarily need very many of them, but you do need that,” she said.
She pointed out that this lack of experience within Whitehall was well known – civil servants have worked on trade policy but the EU has had direct responsibility for negotiating trade deals with the rest of the world.
DIT has recently hired Crawford Falconer, a trade negotiator from New Zealand who was not part of the July delegation to Washington.
Rutter said: “One of his remits is to build the new trade policy profession, some of that will be a negotiating cadre and we think that one of his roles needs to be to make sure that they can attract people in with necessary experience but also build internal expertise.”
She added: “DIT have set up their trade policy academy, and brought in someone to run it who used to work on trade negotiations in the European Commission.
“They’ve done various things to try and replicate what it’s like doing trade negotiations, but there’s no real substitute for having been in the room and done them.”
She called on government to focus on building a trade profession within Whitehall. “The civil service needs to look at the structures and incentives to make sure that… some people stick with [trade] as a specialism for their career rather than treat it as just another interesting two-year posting and… move on.”
The Unearthed analysis revealed that the 27 delegates from the UK included Fox, DExEU’s director of trade and partnerships Antony Phillipson – who has since left the department – and officials and policy advisors from the Treasury, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the business and environment departments.
It pointed out that the lead trade negotiator for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had joined from the British Film Institute, while a senior advisor from DExEU, a few months prior to the meeting, had been working as a procurement officer for Enfield Council.
By contrast, the US team included Maria Pagan, who was the lead US attorney for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Peru and Colombia free trade agreements, and David Weiner, the deputy chief negotiator during the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations.
A bilateral trade deal with the US is central to Fox’s post-Brexit strategy, but Rutter has argued that kicking off Britain’s trade agreements journey with the US – which has “some of the hardest-nosed and most skilled negotiators” – was the wrong approach.
“The US has very skilled negotiators, it’s a big market, and we don’t yet know what a UK model free trade agreement is,” she told CSW.
“And so we very much recommend cutting our teeth on smaller, potentially friendlier, more distant markets… [such as] Singapore, New Zealand, Australia.”
A DIT spokesperson said: “We have the right levels of capability within the department and the US trade Working Group was personally launched by the trade secretary Liam Fox and US trade representative senator Lighthizer.
“DIT has recruited the best and brightest talent with a global workforce of over 3,450 people across more than 100 countries with the Trade Policy Group – including expert economic analysts and lawyers – more than quadrupling in size."
They added that the department had recently recruited "internationally recognised trade expert Crawford Falconer", who has 25 years experience, as the government’s expert adviser on trade negotiation and strategy. He will act as head of profession for trade negotiators.