Britain is “unlikely” to hit its export target, the Secretary of State for International Trade has admitted.
Liam Fox told the International Trade Committee on Wednesday it would be difficult to meet a target to increase UK exports to £1 trillion by 2020, set by former chancellor George Osborne.
Fox blamed low global growth for missing the trade goal, which was set in 2012 as a key part of a Government strategy to boost manufacturing.
Asked by MPs if he could “safely retire” the export target, Fox said “I think it is unlikely to be achievable by 2020”.
“In terms of the level of growth and global trade at the moment... that would make that difficult to achieve,” he said.
During the committee hearing Fox hit out at an article in the Huffington Post, which revealed his department was struggling to perform key duties and get staff into place.
He called the article “ill informed” and “insulting”, after he was challenged about its claims by International Trade Committee member Toby Perkins MP, but admitted he was currently trying to fill 96 department posts, parts of his department were “overworked”, he was looking across Whitehall for skilled staff he could “import”, and that he would have to “buy in” some skills.
“You’ll be aware of the article in January in the Huffington Post quoting trade groups and businesses saying your department was hiring third rate people, and people were running around like headless chickens trying to get civil servants into place”, Perkins said.
“I want to be sure... you have the quality and the resources in place that you need.”
“I thought that particular article was ill informed and I thought rather insulting to our staff,” Fox said.
“Because we have been looking across Whitehall for the people we can import, and there is a lot of skill across Whitehall.”
“...Recently we identified a further 96 posts which we didn’t think we had the capability in Whitehall to fulfil.”
“...They are in the process of coming through our HR, which is one of the most overworked departments in the DIT, for obvious reasons.”
“...I don’t like when articles like that talk about the skilled staff we have already working in Whitehall as ‘second rate’,” he said.
“Third rate actually,” Perkins said.
“Yes, third rate, giving Huffington Post the benefit of the doubt, which is not something I would usually do,” Fox said, but admitted: “not all the skills will be available [in Whitehall] and some will have to be bought in.”
Earlier in the hearing on Wednesday Fox finally abandoned a key trade goal, telling MPs it was “good for us to have the ambition to do it”, but it was not likely to be met.
Trade bodies and business groups have long slated the target, which was part of Osborne’s “march of the makers” manufacturing plans, as over-ambitious.
In 2015 the Office of Budget Responsibility forecast the UK’s exports would have to grow by a third to meet the goal.
Labour’s Liam Byrne, a member of the committee, which was set up to scrutinise Fox’s department, told The Huffington Post UK last month the MP was “living a lie” over meeting the target by 2020.
“They have a target that isn’t deliverable. It’s early days, and we wish them all the best, but flying round the world talking up the future of trade deals isn’t much good for exporters that need help today”, he told HuffPost UK.
In September Fox told the Conservatives’ annual conference trade was “back at the heart of the Government’s agenda”.
He said “it is a sad fact that only 11% of British companies export anything beyond our borders..”
“We know from the performance of our best that we could do much better overall.”
Commenting on the dropped target, Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael said:
“The abandoning of this target shows Liam Fox’s boasts about increasing trade after Brexit were nothing but hot air.
“The best way to help British exporters is to remain in the Single Market, but instead this government is opting for the hardest of hard Brexits.
“The stark truth is that far-flung trade deals will never be able to replace the biggest market in the world that is sitting our doorstep.
“As more and more of the Brexiteers’ claims begin to fall apart, it’s vital we ensure the British people get the final say at the end of this process.”