The Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) must be bulked up to handle the new trade relationships that the United Kingdom will pursue following its departure from the European Union, influential MP Bernard Jenkin has said.
Jenkin, who chairs Westminster’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, told Civil Service World that a new trade directorate needed to be created at the heart of BIS, which should also be rebranded as the Department for Trade and Industry – a name it was known by until 2007.
Ahead of the seismic effects of June 23’s referendum, BIS was on course for thousands of job cuts as part of the BIS 2020 review, designed to save around £350m over the next four years.
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However the reshaping of the department outlined by Jenkin after the UK’s vote to leave the EU would not necessarily save those roles, which documents seen by CSW earlier this year predicted would hit the Student Loans Company and Research Councils particularly hard.
Over the weekend, former Foreign and Commonwealth Office permanent secretary Sir Simon Fraser said he believed the civil service faced a shortfall of staff with the right negotiating skills that ran into the “hundreds”.
Jenkin (pictured) said he envisaged dual programmes of external recruitment and staff retraining to ensure Whitehall had the key skills to negotiate trade deals to replace those the UK currently used as an EU member state.
“The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills ought to be called the Department for Trade and Industry – trade being the operative word,” he said. “And it should reacquire those skills and build up a department that is capable of doing those things.
“There will need to be a new directorate – a trade directorate, [with a director] one rung below permanent secretary.”
Jenkin said the strength of the new directorate would be crucial as there were some 50-60 countries with which the UK “will rapidly wish to replicate the EU agreement” that currently covers this country. Jenkin said he believed that BIS would definitely need to hire in negotiating talent, but was also capable of conducting “significant training” for existing staff.
“The skills that our own civil service will lack in particular are skills that can be taught and acquired concerning expertise about trade negotiations and tariff agreements and the kind of things we used to do before we were in the single market,” he said.
However he insisted that agreeing new trade deals would not be overly complex in many cases. “It literally is about crossing out some headings and putting in some new headings and signing it,” he said.
“I mean, it is not complicated.” Jenkin conceded there would be issues with negotiating new trade deals, but insisted the UK was capable of doing a trade agreement with the United States more quickly than was the case between the United States and the EU – a stance dismissed by US President Barack Obama earlier this year.