Civil service needs reform for post-Brexit trade negotiations


Britain could fail to capitalise on its trading opportunities post Brexit unless the civil service radically reforms the way it works, a think tank has warned.

The Institute for Government (IfG) said ministers and civil servants are not even close to being ready to negotiate the UK's new trading relationships, let alone implement them after it leaves the European Union.

It also urges ministers not to pour resources into negotiating trade deals with the USA and emerging economies such as Russia and China, and instead focus on replicating existing EU deals with countries such as Switzerland and Turkey.

Jill Rutter, the IfG's Brexit programme director, said: "Whitehall is not set up to do trade well.

"Not only does it currently lack the necessary expertise, but its standard ways of working - generalist, secretive and unwilling to make difficult trade-offs - are all the enemies of doing trade policy well.

"Ministers will find that taking back control of trade also means taking back responsibility for some very difficult political choices - and they need to be ready to make and justify them."

The report's authors argue that good trade policy requires civil servants to work across departments, collaborate with business, be open with consumers and the public, and to spend their careers developing deep knowledge and expertise - all of which is not Whitehall's way of doing business.

Oliver Ilott, an IfG senior researcher who wrote the report, said: "Trade policy is about much more than making deals.

"There is a real danger that the UK wastes its limited capacity launching trade negotiations with large numbers of countries, and either doing bad deals quickly or getting bogged down in protracted talks going nowhere.

"The Government needs a strategy that targets a few priority countries and explores options that may be better than free trade agreements."

The report recommends that Whitehall needs to hold onto a specialist team of trade negotiators and take a cross-government approach to Britain's future trade.

It also argues for Parliament to have a greater voice in trade and for a new independent body to be set up, similar to the Office for Budget Responsibility, to oversee trade policy.

A spokeswoman for the Department for International Trade said it had grown to a global workforce of more than 3,000 people since its formation in June 2016.

Its trade and policy group, which includes specialist analysts and lawyers, has also quadrupled in size.

She said: "As part of our preparations to leave the EU, we have been working to identify the best trading opportunities available to the UK.

"Since June 2016, DIT has established a series of nine working groups with 15 countries and high-level dialogues to explore the best ways of progressing our trade and investment relationships."