The Department for International Trade has become the latest part of Whitehall to secure a ministerial direction authorising Brexit-related spending without statutory backing.
Transparency data reveals DIT perm sec Antonia Romeo sought and received trade secretary Liam Fox’s approval for £8.9m to create new watchdog body the Trade Remedies Authority on the last working day of March.
The TRA will be a non-departmental public body tasked with investigating and policing global fair trade on behalf of UK domestic industries and consumers, and advising the secretary of state on such matters post-Brexit. Its creation is part of the Trade Bill, which has yet to become law.
In a letter dated March 29, Romeo sought Fox’s direction to commence spending on the creation of the TRA ahead of Royal Assent being granted to the bill, which is due to enter report stage in the House of Commons.
“Delaying this spend until the underpinning legislation is in place – as set out in the new services rules within Managíng Public Money – would jeopardise the Department's preparation for the UK's exit from the EU with implications for our future trade policy,” she said.
“Spend related to the service is expected to commence from April 2018 at an estimated cost before Royal Assent of £8.9m. This will encompass spend on board appointments, staff, estates, infrastructure and IT, training, digital, and legal and industry experts to assist with TRA set up and operational process design.”
Fox’s same-day response confirmed the direction, and agreed that delaying key work on the TRA until the Trade Bill became law would “hinder our ability to deliver a priority body, equipped to perform its statutory functions”. He also commended Romeo’s “prudent approach” to protected spend in light of the parliamentary timetable.
Ministerial directions are most frequently used when departmental accounting officers, usually perm secs, think that to go ahead with a planned policy would be inappropriate or not value for money. Requests effectively force ministers to publicly defend their proposals and issue formal instructions to proceed, as was the case when Cabinet Office perm sec John Manzoni sought a direction over then-prime minister David Cameron's plans to boost severance pay for his staff after the EU referendum.
However, they can also be used for ministers to provide approval for spending that does not yet have legislative backing – a tool Treasury perm sec Tom Scholar and Department for Exiting the European Union chief Philip Rycroft last year said should be used to aid Brexit preparations.
In January this year, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs perm sec Clare Moriarty became the first Whitehall leader to seek a Brexit-related ministerial direction when she called on secretary of state Michael Gove to approve £16m for half a dozen Brexit related projects in advance of the EU Withdrawal Bill becoming law.
In March, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy perm sec Alex Chisholm sought and received ministerial direction from business secretary Greg Clark to approve spending of £2.4m for a product safety database.
Details of DIT’s proposals for the TRA first emerged last summer when the department began advertising for implementation team members for what it then referred to as the UK Trade Remedies Organisation. At the time the DIT said it expected the body would need to become “fully operational” by October 2018.