Liam Fox ridiculed as ‘man of solitude’ over claims his department lacks seasoned trade negotiators

‘It is extremely worrying that Liam Fox’s failing department can only name one trade expert on their staff,’ says the SNP’s Kirsty Blackman

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Saturday 28 October 2017 22:42
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The International Trade Secretary has repeatedly insisted that securing a post-Brexit deal with the European Union should be the ‘easiest in human history’
The International Trade Secretary has repeatedly insisted that securing a post-Brexit deal with the European Union should be the ‘easiest in human history’

Liam Fox has been ridiculed for being a “man of solitude” over claims his International Trade Department has an alarming lack of seasoned trade negotiators.

Casting doubt on the International Trade Secretary’s repeated assertion that securing a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union should be the “easiest in human history”, the Department for International Trade (DIT) only managed to list one impressive resume when asked how many experienced trade professionals the 15-month old department employs.

While highlighting the credentials of Crawford Falconer – an internationally recognised expert – the department’s minister for trade policy Greg Hands did not give details of any other employees with “substantial experience of international trade negotiations” in response to a written question in the Commons.

Mr Hands added that the department has a “strong and capable” trade policy team which has grown significantly since Theresa May became Prime Minister and created the department in July 2016. Its aim will be to negotiate free trade deals across the globe after Britain’s formal departure from the EU in March 2019.

He said: “Internationally recognised expert Crawford Falconer is now in post as DIT’s chief trade negotiation adviser and second permanent secretary. Mr Falconer will support the establishment of a world-class trade negotiation function and lead the development of the International Trade profession for trade negotiators. He has more than 25 years of public service experience in trade and foreign affairs.”

But the SNP MP Kirsty Blackman, who asked the minister the question, said the response was “incredibly alarming”.

“It is extremely worrying that Liam Fox’s failing department can only name one trade expert on their staff,” she told The Independent. “They are not one step closer to signing the promised trade deals with the wider world 16 months since the vote to leave the EU.”

While the DIT dismissed claims it had just one employee with “substantial experience of international trade negotiations”, it declined to provide an exact number.

In a statement, a spokesperson added: “When recruiting civil servants, managers are able to review candidates’ previous experience and career history as part of our recruitment policies and campaigns. Where trade negotiation skills are required, these are clearly set out in the advertised vacancy and tested through the departmental recruitment process.

“The Department for International Trade has a strong and capable trade policy team which has grown significantly since its establishment in July 2016 and is continuing to grow. DIT has more than 3,450 staff, with our ‘Trade Policy Group’ of almost 400 people including expert economic analysts and lawyers, as well as country specialists and those with a range of experience of international trade negotiations – to suggest otherwise is incorrect.”

The International Trade Department was unable to provide data on the language skills of its staff (PA)

One of the most significant reasons why the British Government appears to lack experienced specialists in negotiating complex trade deals is due to the fact the European Commission has negotiated on the UK’s behalf since the 1970s when Britain joined the bloc.

In a second response requested by the Labour MP Pat McFadden, the department also conceded it had no data on how many of its staff were fluent in languages such as Spanish, Japanese and Arabic. “The Department for International Trade does not currently hold central data on the language skills of its workforce,” Mr Hands said.

The admission was seized on Mr McFadden, who ridiculed Mr Fox for being a “man of solitude”, adding: “He has established a Board of Trade of which he is the only member, and we now discover that he runs a Department for International Trade that employs just one professional trade negotiator.”

Mr McFadden, who is also a leading supporter of Open Britain, which campaigns against hard Brexit, continued: “The Brexit Secretary promised last year that Liam Fox will negotiate a free area ten times the size of the EU by next September, so he and his lone trade negotiator will be busy.

“The DIT must ensure we retain access to the trade deals we have already negotiated through the EU. These have been growing in number in recent years and it is not guaranteed we will be able to roll these over when we leave.”

It also comes after it was revealed earlier this month that Mr Fox had travelled to Washington to open informal trade talks with the US alongside 27 officials, who had little negotiating experience. The information – obtained through a Freedom of Information request by Greenpeace – also claimed the US team, in contrast, contained highly experienced specialists.

And weeks later Mr Fox was a source of further ridicule following the launch of his department’s new Board of Trade, of which the International Trade Secretary was the only official member. Membership of the board – set up to “ensure the benefits of free trade are spread” throughout the UK – is restricted to Privy Councillors.

James McGrory, the executive director of Open Britain, responding to the creation of the board earlier this month, said: “I hope that at the inaugural meeting of the new Board of Trade, Liam Fox managed to have positive and constructive discussions with Liam Fox, after hearing expert analysis by Dr Liam Fox on the impact of Brexit.”

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