Brexit: DIT perm sec reveals how government got its trade plans ready

Trade department perm sec tells CSW that work to fuse regional trade plans with UK economic sectors is nearing completion

Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

By Richard Johnstone

14 May 2019

The permanent secretary of the Department for International Trade has revealed details of how the ministry has worked to join up the UK’s trade and investment policy as it gears up for the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Speaking to Civil Service World as the department nears completion of its landmark work to develop new trade strategies ahead of its third anniversary in July, Antonia Romeo said the department now had “a better grip on the system”.

The department was formed by prime minister Theresa May in 2016 following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, in order to forge new trade arrangements when the UK leaves the bloc.


To do this, the department has developed a new international trade profession in the civil service to support and develop trade specialists, and well as bringing together the UK Trade and Investment and UK Export Finance teams with the development of trade policy. A number of senior appointments have been made, including HM trade commissioners who are responsible for trade and investment policy in nine global regions, as well as director generals for both investment (Mark Slaughter) and exports (John Mahon).

Reflecting on the recruitment in the department, Romeo said the department was now in a position to unite its regional trade plans with export drives based on specific sectors of the economy for the first time.
“We've got the regional trade plans, which each one of the HMTCs is responsible for that include essentially all trade investment and trade policy for that region,” Romeo highlighted. “Those are essentially plans for markets, and they dock in with sector plans, which we now have are across all the main sectors in which we operate. So we have a really good picture of which sectors, which markets, are focusing on exports, where you are focusing on investment [and], where are you focusing on deepening market access.
“Those things all need to fit together [and] we'll have complete join up [in this financial year].”

The HMTCs work with the department’s global strategy directorate that “essentially operates like a hub for all of the HMTCs” on shared issues, while the exports and investments DGs link their intelligence to the rest of the department to ensure the “sustainability and growth of exports and investments to the benefit of the UK economy”, Romeo said.

“One of the things that I'm really determined that we do is take advantage of the fact there's only nine [trade commissioners] and they run our entire overseas network of 1,400 people on economic and trade work overseas.

“That's got to work completely seamlessly with all the people here, and also in UK agents talking to exporters. So getting the system to work is really probably one of the most important things and bringing in Mark and John to run exports and investment respectively has meant that we've got people at board level responsible for owning that system. Everybody has somebody who is focusing on connecting the overseas network to the department.”

The “massive advantages of doing this reorganisation” is being able to get information from the nine HMTCs on the ground, she added.

“If you want to talk about global trade tensions between some of the world's biggest superpowers, you can get a small number of people in a room and they are experts in their markets. They all see it from different sides and you get a really good strategic understanding of the picture. That's the holy grail – getting information directly from the market on trade and investment and economic prosperity straight back to the people who work here, but also then from here [in DIT] into Whitehall.”

Life after Brexit

Romeo was speaking to CSW before the extension of the Article 50 Brexit process to the end of October was agreed. She acknowledged that in the department there’s “a huge amount of focus on Brexit and when Brexit happens”, and that businesses can "end up in a bit of a holding pattern" due to uncertainty.

She added: “We are talking to businesses all the time but there’s not a lot we can do about reducing uncertainty where it exists as a fact. But what we can do is to ensure we are minimising as much as possible, and being clear about certainty where it does exist. And as we achieve certainty on specific things, obviously that will change our priorities in terms of markets and where are we going to be focusing for exports and investment.

“So the whole department is affected, although we really see a lot of our job as being about the future and life beyond Brexit, as the secretary of state [Liam Fox] is keen on saying.”

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