Liam Fox slams former civil service chiefs over criticism of his department

International trade secretary pushes back against Lord O'Donnell and Sir Andrew Cahn's House mag and CSW comments on the work of his new ministry

By Matt Foster

01 Feb 2017

Liam Fox has called on two former senior civil servants who questioned the existence of the Department for International Trade to apologise, as he insisted that the new ministry will have plenty of work to do before the UK leaves the European Union.

The DIT was set up by Theresa May when she became prime minister as part of a Brexit-focused shake-up of Whitehall. It swallowed up the existing UK Trade and Investments body, as well as UK Export Finance and some Foreign Office functions.

But some commentators have questioned whether the DIT, led by Fox, will have enough on its plate ahead of the UK's formal exit from the EU, as the UK cannot sign new trade deals until it has left the bloc.

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Former cabinet secretary Lord O'Donnell told The House magazine last year that he was "slightly puzzled" by the set up, and suggested that the work of the DIT should have instead been given to the Department for Exiting the European Union. Meanwhile, Sir Andrew Cahn, the former head of UKTI, told CSW that a standalone trade department could prove to be a "distraction", arguing that there was not "enough work there, certainly not for the next two years".

"They should begin by apologising to all my hard-working staff" – Liam Fox

Both of those quotes were put to Fox on Wednesday, as MPs on the international trade committee got their first chance to grill the cabinet minister on his department's work.

Pressed on O'Donnell and Cahn's remarks by committee chair Angus MacNeil, Fox said the pair were "very welcome to come in and share in the workload" at the DIT.

"And they should begin by apologising to all my hard-working staff, not only in Whitehall but around the world, [and recognising staff] for the great work that they do on behalf of this country," he added.

"Perhaps they're unaware of that work. And they're all very much invited to come in and see it for themselves and to pay tribute to the people who are doing that work."

Defending his department's focus, Fox pointed out that the DIT had been configured as "an amalgamation of a number of different parts of government", with responsibility for promoting British exports and boosting investment into the UK, as well as exploring policy options for a post-Brexit world.

"I understand that people will want to focus on that last part," he said. "But in terms of the current work of the department, that is only a portion of that. "And of course, we've got to maintain our UK trade promotion because we have to earn our way in the world [...] That needs to improve, and one of the functions of the department is to ensure that we can provide the mechanics that can help companies get into exporting."

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Committee member Nigel Evans asked Fox whether the DIT could realistically start thrashing out trade deals before it leaves the EU, and while the international trade secretary acknowledged that the UK had "to abide by certain duties" while it remained a member of the bloc, he pointed out that there is currently "no precedent" for what happens when a nation quits the EU.

"What we have said is that we will abide our duty of sincere cooperation where we can," he said. "We also, while we are members of European Union, will push for trade liberalisation and seek the completion of agreements that are currently there."

"We won't be signing any negotiation. But we'll want to be taking legal advice as we go on, about what we think the parameters are" – Liam Fox

But he warned that it would be "against Britain's national interest not to be discussing" potential trade tie-ups with other partners before Brexit.

"We have a number of ways we can do that," he said. "We have a number of different arrangements with different countries, depending on what we see as the potential for an agreement and what we see as the chance of getting an agreement in an early timeframe.

"And so we will be discussing and we will be scoping out future agreements with those countries. We won't be signing any negotiation. But we'll want to be taking legal advice as we go on, about what we think the parameters are for freedom of movement. But ultimately the government is there to do what's good for the United Kingdom's national interest."

Fox also revealed that DIT officials would be speaking to their United States counterparts "this week" about the "degree of ambition" behind president Donald Trump's offer to sign a post-Brexit trade deal with the US.

Trump's pick for US commerce secretary, the billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, is currently awaiting confirmation from the senate before beginning work, and Fox promised "ministerial level dialogue" once Ross had received the backing of lawmakers.

"I hope that I will, within the next few weeks, be able to begin that dialogue with my American counterpart," he said. "But we're extremely sensitive to the fact that until the confirmation hearings have been completed it might be inappropriate for us to have those contacts."

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