'Chronic mismanagement' at Liam Fox's trade department could derail May's Brexit plans

  • “Chronic mismanagement” and a “lack of expertise” at the UK government’s international trade department risk derailing May’s plans for Brexit.
  • A new report from the industry body representing UK shipping is damning about the government’s preparations.
  • Maritime UK warns of a “lack of strategic vision and ambition” at the department.
  • The warning comes as May’s government struggles to reassure business about their progress on Brexit.

LONDON – “Chronic mismanagement” and a lack of expertise within Liam Fox’s trade department could completely derail the government’s Brexit trade plans, according to the group which represents Britain’s maritime sector.

Maritime UK, the umbrella body for Britain’s shipping, ports, and marine services, warned that there are “far too few industry experts” at the Department of International Trade (DIT) and suggested that the department is in a “worse state now” than it was when it was launched in July 2016.

“We, and countless other sectors, are falling victim to the lack of strategic vision and ambition that seems to be rife in the Department for International Trade,” said David Dingle, chairman of Maritime UK.

He said that there is just one dedicated member of frontline staff at DIT promoting the export of the UK’s maritime products and services – which range from superyachts to technical equipment and professional services – while other services have significantly more staff dedicated to the same role. The creative sector, for example, has 15 staff promoting its exports.

Britain’s maritime sector moves 95% of Britain’s international trade and supports 932,000 jobs, directly employing 185,000 people, Maritime UK said, and Liam Fox has previously suggested the sector would play a crucial part in Britain’s post-Brexit success.

“The UK’s maritime industry brings billions of pounds a year into our economy and will be vital to our continued prosperity when we leave the European Union,” Fox said last year.

“As an international economic department, our ambition is that we lead the way in world-class shipbuilding and maritime technology.”

But Ben Murray, director of Maritime UK, said in a statement that there was “a chronic lack of direct industry experience” within the DIT, and criticised the department for hiring trade staff who had not previously worked within the maritime sector.

“While the department has taken steps to take on a new crop of Trade Commissionaires […] a huge percentage of these are career civil servants,” he said.

“How can we possibly expect individuals who have spent their lives outside of industry to understand the real requirements of UK business wanting to sell overseas?

“They may well be honest hardworking civil servants but in what way are they qualified to do this? You wouldn’t expect a dentist (despite how qualified they were) to fly a Boeing 747.”

In a statement, a DIT spokesperson said: “Our specialist expertise helped the UK’s innovative maritime companies to secure hundreds of millions of pounds worth of deals across the globe last year, helping British companies to attend high profile international events such as the Miami International Boat Show and the Dusseldorf boat show in the process.”

The department is tasked with striking new trade deals and rolling over existing ones, as well as promoting Britain’s exports after Brexit.

But it has been the object of mounting criticism over its perceived incompetence, understaffing, and lack of preparation.

Business Insider reported in April that the European Commission is “deeply concerned” over Fox’s department’s incompetent handling of trade deal rollovers,” and his “failure to grasp basic concepts and trade-offs.” The Times also reported on Monday that British negotiators will have a matter of weeks to renegotiate over 40 trade deals it currently has with other countries next year.

Today’s warning comes as business leaders speak out about their growing unease at the lack of government preparation for Brexit, following a meeting with May on Monday.

“Businesses need clarity about the government’s objectives to help them to plan. Everything is still subject to negotiation with the EU, but we don’t yet know what the UK will pushing for in key areas like customs,” Edwin Morgan, head of media relations at the Institute of Directors, said in a statement.

“Our members want to know whether the government’s forthcoming white paper will make clear their intentions on VAT, customs and regulatory alignment – to understand in what areas ministers foresee continued harmonisation with EU rules, and where they want freedom to diverge.”

“As an international economic department, we are attracting the brightest and best talent, growing to more than 3,500 people since its creation in July 2016, and we are currently in the process of expanding our specialist maritime sector team,” said the DIT spokesperson.

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