Civil Service ‘not even close’ to being ready for post-Brexit trade

Civil Service workers and ministers are currently “not even close” to being ready to negotiate new global trading relationships, according to the Institute for Government (IfG).

In a report called ‘Taking Back Control of Trade Policy’ the IfG has warned that even though a new trade department has been established by the government, the Civil Service is still not even close to negotiating or implementing new global relationships.

This follows the NAO warning that the Civil Service was not properly equipped as it prepares for challenges presented by the UK’s imminent exit from the EU.

The authors of the report set out how the UK can become a powerful independent player in international trade by arguing that good trade policy requires civil servants to work across departments, collaborate with business be open with consumers, and spend their careers developing deep knowledge and expertise.

It also states that ministers now have “tricky choices” about what the country’s priorities are, and recognises that trade policy is not just about making deals. It also urges ministers to not sink resources into negotiations with the BRIC countries and instead prioritise the replication of existing EU deals with Canada, South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey and Singapore.

Jill Rutter, Brexit programme director at the IfG, 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.”

And Oliver Ilott, IfG senior researcher and report author, said there was a real danger that the UK will waste its limited capacity launching trade negotiations with a huge number of countries, and the deals becoming bogged down in “protracted talks that go nowhere”.

“The government needs a strategy that targets a few priority countries and explores options that may be better than free trade agreements,” Ilott concluded.

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