Whitehall has neither the “manpower or the expertise” to cope with new trade deals after Brexit and risks being outgunned by foreign powers’ policy experts, campaigners have warned.
Barely a year before Brexit day, Britain has just 25 staff working on trade disputes policy, the Department of International Trade has admitted.
The UK’s new Trade Remedies Authority will take over dealing with trade disputes after Brexit – currently this is still being handled by the EU.
It will play a vital role in securing stable trade agreements post-2019 and was a key plank of the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox’s trade bill – but just a fraction of the people needed to get it up and running have been recruited.
By way of comparison, the equivalent American body, the United States International Trade Commission, has 360 employees and 377 work for the Directorate-General for Trade at the European Commission.
Soft Brexit-supporters have reacted with concern and warned Fox that “the clock is ticking”.
The Government said it was not reasonable to expect all staff to be in place for the fledgling body, as the UK was still officially represented by the EU and the authority was not yet operational.
Labour MP Peter Kyle, who supports the pro-single market pressure group Open Britain, said: “This is yet another example of Liam Fox talking the talk and not walking the walk.
“His new Trade Remedies Authority will need to fight the UK’s corner in trade disputes in just over a year’s time and yet the number of staff working on setting it up is just a fraction of what will eventually be needed.
“The Government’s ‘Empire 2.0’ vision of quickly signing lots of new trade deals with major economies around the world is built on sand. We don’t have the manpower or the expertise in Whitehall to make it work, and the clock is ticking.”
It comes amid fears there is a dearth of trade experts in the labour market and as Theresa May confirmed the UK will leave the customs union – sparking fears of more complex trade deal negotiations.
Brexit Secretary David Davis announced last month that the UK will be free to strike trade deals during the transition period after March 2019.
The Trade Remedies Authority will settle disputes over unfair trade practices and will give foreign powers confidence the UK will play by rules.
It will become an independent body and eventually have many more staff, a Department for International Trade spokesman said.
He added: “As the UK is still a member of the EU, investigations and actions on trade remedies are carried out by the EU on the UK’s behalf.
“The Trade and Customs Bills are on track to help set up a new UK Trade Remedies Authority (TRA) with the right level of capability to protect UK industry once we leave the EU.
“Furthermore, our Trade Policy Group now numbers over 450 and our Chief Trade Negotiation Adviser, Crawford Falconer alone brings 25 years of experience in trade and foreign affairs and has also been a judge on over 15 WTO international trade disputes”.