More detail has emerged on the top team of civil servants who will lead the new Department for International Trade – but the UK's former trade chief has questioned whether it will have enough work to do before ministers spell out what Britain's departure from the European Union will look like in practice.
DIT, which swallows up what was UK Trade and Investments (UKTI), was formed as part of new prime minister Theresa May's wide-ranging shake-up of the structure of Whitehall.
Working under eurosceptic secretary of state Liam Fox (pictured), it has been given the task of drawing up a new, post-Brexit trade policy for the UK, including preparing to negotiate free trade agreements and market access deals with countries outside the EU once Britain leaves.
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The department – which cannot formally negotiate new deals until the UK has left the EU – is being led on an interim basis by permanent secretary Martin Donnelly, who is also the joint permanent secretary of the beefed-up Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and a senior official with extensive Foreign Office experience.
Reporting to Donnelly will be Catherine Raines, the former chief executive of UKTI, a cross-government team which was set up to increase UK exports and attract inward investment. UKTI has now been replaced as a standalone entity by the new department and Raines – who was drafted into Whitehall from the private sector in 2013 to serve as director general of UKTI's China arm, becomes the new department's director general for international trade and investment.
Paul McComb, who was the managing director of strategy at UKTI, has meanwhile been appointed as transition programme director, overseeing the move to the new departmental structure. Up until the start of this year, McComb was principal private secretary to then-work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
"Really serious frictional cost"
The decision to create a dedicated trade department ahead of Brexit has already led to reports of a dispute between the DIT and the Foreign Office, however.
A letter leaked to the press showed that Fox had been pushing for a permanent transfer of staff from the FCO to his new department, a move reportedly resisted by foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
And former UKTI chief executive Andrew Cahn has told CSW that he fears a standalone trade department could prove to be a "distraction".
Speaking in an interview set to be published in full later this month, Cahn, who stepped down as the UK's top trade official in 2011, said Fox may struggle to send out positive signals to potential trading partners while Britain's future relationship with the EU remains unclear.
"Formally speaking he's not entitled to negotiate, and certainly not to sign any trade deals until we've left," Cahn said.
"I don't think, in the real world, that stops him going and having exploratory conversations. I think his problem isn't so much that [...] But he has a different problem which is that he doesn't have very much to say, and the partners he wants to deal with – the Americans, the Chinese, the Brazilians, the Indians – aren't actually going to be particularly interested in talking detail until they know what the nature of Britain's relationship with the European Union is going to be."
"I don't think there's enough work there, certainly not for the next two years" – former UKTI chief exec Andrew Cahn
Cahn also said that while machinery of government changes were "sometimes" necessary, he could not "quite see the argument for the Department for International Trade".
"I don't think there's enough work there, certainly not for the next two years. And you're then left with the rump of the business department.
"I understand the politics of it – it was very symbolic in all sorts of ways. And that's usually why you have machinery of government changes – to make a political point. That's fine – it's for politicians to decide to do. But there is a really serious frictional cost to it and it makes life more difficult for the civil servants who are trying to deliver."
The former UKTI chief pointed out that the creation of DIT "merely confirms a long-term trend" of ministers tinkering with the structure of the government organisations responsible for boosting Britain's overseas business reputation.
"Our public sector has failed to find consistent, stable ways of managing our export promotion," he said. "The countries that are particularly successful are countries like Singapore, Ireland, Canada, Germany – and they have very stable structures, with a lot of political support, and a lot of expertise built up over a number of years.
"We have none of those things. So I regret this latest change, not particularly for the change so much as the fact that any change was a pity – because there has just been too much for UKTI."
"Career civil servant"
Unlike UKTI, UK Export Finance – which provides insurance to British firms exporting overseas – appears to have retained a standalone identity within the new department, and former investment banker Louis Taylor remains its chief executive, while also being included in the DIT management team.
Taylor is a civil service outsider, and was brought into UKEF from Standard Chartered Bank, where he headed up the organisation's Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos operations.
Spearheading trade policy at the department is director general John Alty, described on his GOV.UK profile as a "career civil servant who has worked for the majority of time in the business department".
Alty joins the new trade department from his previous role as chief executive of the Intellectual Property Office, the government body overseeing patents and copyright. He has also served as director general for knowledge and innovation at what was BIS.
On the day-to-day running of the department, Emma Squire will lead on supporting ministers as director for ministerial strategy and the private office directorate.
Squire served as principal private secretary to Sajid Javid as business minister, and before that was a deputy director in the department. She also brings trade experience to the role, having served in the former trade departments multi-lateral negotiations team in the mid-2000s.
James Norton has meanwhile been brought in from the Cabinet Office's central human resources team – Civil Service Resourcing – to become DIT's HR director.
Norton joined the civil service through its Fast Stream graduate entry scheme, and he has also served as HR director for the strategy group at the Department for Work and Pensions', one of the biggest Whitehall departments.
Howard Orme, the BEIS director general for finance, commercial and digital transformation, is providing transitional support on the finance side for the new organisation.
Orme, a qualified accountant, has also been deputy finance director general at the DWP, and, according to his GOV.UK profile, joined the civil service after a 24-year private sector career that included stints at Unilever and Allied Domecq.
According to GOV.UK, the DIT is also on the hunt for a lead non-executive board member and three further non-execs to provide scrutiny of its work.
Update 25/8: An earlier version of this story said Howard Orme had been appointed as director general for finance at DIT – a spokesperson has since been in touch to say that Orme is instead providing transitional support to the new organisation, and that he remains at BEIS as a DG.