The UK’s chief trade negotiation advisor has insisted the Department for International Trade has plenty of time to reach a comprehensive trade deal with the US, and is in “good homework mode” ahead of being allowed to negotiate deals when Britain leaves the EU in 2019.
Crawford Falconer, questioned by MPs on Wednesday about DIT’s ability to negotiate a UK-US trade deal palatable to the British public, said a process of engaging stakeholders was underway and that future arrangements would not be “cooked up by a few bureaucrats sitting in a corner”.
His comments come amid criticism that government’s trade aspirations give undue prominence to a deal with the US, which has a much stronger negotiating team than the UK and lower standards in certain areas, including allowing chlorine-dipped chicken that is banned by EU.
Meanwhile Liam Fox, secretary of state for international trade, said that an initial priority for DIT was to “rapidly expand” its workforce, and that 734 people had joined it since February.
Falconer, DIT’s second permanent secretary, told the Commons’ International Trade Committee a UK-US trade deal was still a top priority for the department, and there was no reason why “mutually beneficial arrangement” could not be agreed even in areas like food and beverage.
“I think one of the most important things is that this will not be rushed,” he said, adding that DIT was in “a very good homework mode” given the period until March 2019 where it is not in a position to negotiate because the UK is still part of the EU.
He added: “In parallel what we will be doing is what any good negotiator does… we will be conducting very extensive negotiations with all private sector and stakeholders to make sure that we have exactly the right kind of approach to the negotiations.
“This won’t be something cooked up by a few bureaucrats sitting in a corner. It will have to be part of serious engagement process with all the people that are commercially affected.”
Falconer, a New Zealand/UK dual-national hired for his extensive experience in trade negotiation, is also head of profession for trade negotiators.
Fox, who sparked some controversy by defending chlorinated chicken, added that in future more public consultation would be required prior to negotiations taking place.
“UK consumers will have a strong view on all future trade agreements,” he said, conceding that politicians and officials need to be aware of the political parameters around, for example, ethical production, safety standards, and workers’ rights, in order not to agree something they “couldn’t sell to parliament or public”.
Commenting on recent reports highlighting the difference in negotiating prowess between the UK and US officials, Fox insisted that work to develop a cross-government trade policy function was well underway.
He added: “The idea that it should come as a surprise to anyone that the United States has got more seasoned negotiators than the United Kingdom which has not done it for 43 years is really quite something.”
Fox told MPs that he believed that the Department for Exiting the European Union would continue to function after March 2019 if the UK leaves without a deal and still needs to negotiate arrangements with the EU. “I would expect that to be a single continuous process and not to be switching batons at 2019,” he said.
He also made a point of using his introductory comments to the committee to offer his support to civil servants. “Can I take this opportunity in front of the committee to praise the hard work of our civil servants?
“I think there is nothing worse than elements outside parliament denigrating the hard work that our civil servants do for us, and all of us who have served in government I think would like to place on the record our thanks to them for that.”