The Department for International Trade wants to build the trade skills of existing civil servants rather than buy in outside help as the UK prepares to leave the European Union, according to the new organisation's director of capability.
In the months following this summer's Brexit vote, much attention has been paid to the lack of trade policy experience inside Whitehall, a result of four decades in which responsibility for trade deals involving the UK has been handed to the EU.
But DIT's Oliver Griffiths, who is leading the new department's work to ensure it has the resources for a post-Brexit world, told MPs on Tuesday that the DIT had been able to draw on existing internal expertise as it begins work, and pointed to a trebling of its trade policy staff numbers since the referendum.
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"We start from a core that was strong on trade policy," he said. "We had about 45 people in June that were focused on trade policy – albeit within the context of that being a support position for the European Commission in the EU. Now that's the core that we're building from. We're about 100 up from that."
Last week's Autumn Statement confirmed that the Foreign Office and Department for International Trade are to be given an extra £26m a year by 2019-20 to strengthen trade policy capability, and CSW understands that this extra money will lead to a five-fold increase in the number of people working on trade issues across government.
Griffiths said that the DIT's leadership had "an important decision" to make as it expands: whether to "buy" in or "build" trade policy clout.
"Our strong preference will always be to build," he said. "And our focus on recruitment to date has been almost exclusively from Whitehall."
A dedicated trade faculty has already been set up in the Foreign Office to help with what Griffiths called the "huge weight" of building those skills among existing civil servants, and James Norton – DIT's HR and organisational development director – said the department had plans to grow its trade policy staff numbers to 350 "by the end of the year".
John Alty, the DIT's director general for trade policy said the department's work remained "very much at a planning and exploratory stage" before next year's expected triggering of Article 50, the formal process by which the UK kicks off two years of talks on its EU exit.
Until then, Alty pointed out, the UK has "an obligation as members of the EU not to run an independent trade policy", although he said the department had already heard from countries "interested in talking to us about future trading arrangements".
"We obviously feed into the preparations for the Article 50 negotiations in so far as they may affect trade," he said. "But the direction of travel will become clearer as the government takes these decisions about how it wants to negotiate with the EU."
Meanwhile, Griffiths set out the scale of the task facing the DIT in the years ahead, pointing out that a typical free trade agreement is split into 20 to 30 chapters, each covering a different area of the economy. Such agreements are, he said, usually supported by a team of "50-100 people, depending on how big the negotiation is".
Griffiths said that striking deals at that scale will call for officials both with detailed policy knowledge and the "experience and skills to carry out a negotiation in a very complex multi-stakeholder environment".
It was on this second area, he added, where Whitehall may need to eventually draw on outside help.
"We've done a lot of the latter in the civil service in the past," he said. "But I think it would be a mistake to just look at the civil service and so, as we move into that detailed negotiation phase [...] in the future we would certainly be looking to have those posts opened to the best and the brightest both in the public and private sectors."