The section of the Department for International Trade tasked with overseeing work to open up overseas markets to UK business after Brexit is still 20% below its target staffing level, according to a report from the National Audit Office.
The NAO found that although the DIT’s Trade Policy Group has grown from 119 staff when it was set up in 2016 to 650 as of February this year, its headcount is still 135 below the department’s desired level – effectively 82% of full staffing.
The NAO overview of DIT’s work has also flagged that the department had to “reallocate” trade negotiation staff from work on four new trade deals to focus on negotiating “continuity deals” that will replicate agreements that the UK was part of as an EU member state as the clock ticked down towards the original 29 March Brexit deadline.
It said the UK had aimed to complete the continuation process for 34 trade deals between the EU and third countries by the end of March, but has so far completed fewer than one third of that target.
“It has so far signed 10, and has reallocated staff from the new deals onto the continuity negotiations to provide extra capacity,” the report says.
“DIT is in the early stages of developing a programme function to oversee negotiations, including a skills database to identify and track negotiating skills across government.”
The NAO report, titled Preparing for Trade Negotiations, is an overview of DIT’s work, rather than a forensic examination of its efforts to secure value for money for the public purse. It is not critical of DIT.
It noted that DIT’s remit in relation to the UK’s future trade relations is an extremely broad one that requires the involvement of almost all parts of government.
“The new trade deals are large, complex, resource-intensive deals and will require both specialist skills and staff from other government departments who have also created trade teams,” it observed.
“The effectiveness of DIT’s trade negotiations will rely to a great extent on sufficient programme management arrangements, in particular to deal with any capacity restraints.”
In terms of staff resources, the NAO report highlighted that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union following June 2016’s referendum created a need for government-based trade negotiators that had not existed for the previous 40 years.
The report said the DIT had led work on developing an international trade profession that now had close on 3,000 members across Whitehall.
“DIT’s Trade Policy Group, which oversees the department’s activities in opening up overseas markets, has grown from 119 staff when it was set up in 2016 to around 650 staff in February 2019,” it said.
The report added that the group was supported by 66 lawyers and 86 trade analysts from the wider department and a team of 60 Department for International Development staff leading on UK trade with developing countries.
“The staff numbers include employees, contractors, those on loan from other government departments and secondees from external organisations,” the report said.
“DIT considers that it still needs to recruit an additional 135 people across the Trade Policy Group.”
The NAO said that since DIT launched the cross-government International Trade Profession, designed to attract, build and retain staff keen to build a career in the area, it had secured more than 2,700 members from across 25 departments and arm’s-length bodies. It also boasts 14 heads of profession from across 12 departments.
“DIT has developed a programme of trade policy training in partnership with the FCO Diplomatic Academy’s Trade Policy and Negotiation Faculty,” the NAO added.
“DIT told us that by March 2019, it and the faculty had offered more than 1,000 places on its trade policy foundation and practitioner level training, and by April 2019 DIT had offered more than 400 available places for expert-level trade-policy training.
“DIT has also developed an accelerated programme of trade policy and negotiations skills training, including the Trade Negotiations Simulation Programme which is designed to upskill those leading and supporting frontline FTA negotiations.”
The public-spending watchdog said DIT was aware its representatives would be pitted against “countries that are highly experienced in trade negotiations”.
Responding to the report, a DIT spokesperson said the UK’s role in the world had “never been more important” as the nation prepared to leave the EU.
“The National Audit Office’s report outlines that the department is a champion of free trade and has rolled over several EU trade agreements – indeed, one was signed earlier this week,” they said.
“The department’s support has also helped businesses boost exports to a record high.”
The spokesperson highlighted that DIT is responsible for supporting British business to export and securing investment for companies across the country, as well as giving the government an increased focus and capability to put trade at the heart of UK growth and prosperity. Earlier this week, Civil Service World revealed how the Department for International Trade had worked to join up the UK’s trade and investment policy as it gears up for the UK’s exit from the European Union.