Key Brexit department criticised for falling behind schedule

A key Brexit department has been accused of falling behind on its tight schedule and risking the future of British business in a critical report by Whitehall’s spending watchdog.

The Department for International Trade (DIT), which is in charge of developing post-Brexit free trade agreements, is struggling to make deadlines, recruit enough specialist staff or retrain its existing workforce, the National Audit Office said.

The report will raise concerns over the leadership of Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, who has accused British business of failing to prepare for new trade deals he was set to negotiate and of becoming “too lazy and too fat” on previous successes.

Labour’s Meg Hillier, the chair of the Commons public accounts committee, said the department could put UK business at risk.

“Failure to get the right trade deals in place from day one of Brexit could mean higher prices, lost jobs and companies going out of business,” she said.

“It is deeply worrying that the NAO’s report says DIT is already behind schedule and it is not clear how it will be able to get the negotiators it needs.”

Auditors found that the department was falling behind in some areas. “Delivery of the work streams will be challenging and DIT has put back some of its delivery milestones as the timetable for legislation and the overall negotiation process has moved on,” the report said.

The civil service model, which sees staff move every few years, was “not best suited” to developing specific trade and negotiation skills, and there would be a “premium” on retraining and recruiting outside employees.

“Considerable work will need to be done to build skills that have not existed in government for a generation,” the NAO said.

Auditors noted the £25m in additional funding granted by the Treasury to the DIT for EU exit work over the 2017-2018 financial year, but said it was not yet clear how much DIT would need to fulfil its obligations.

The report said: “While DIT continues to plan for successful delivery on the key scenarios, uncertainty around the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the EU and any implementation period mean that it needs to be flexible and keep its plans under review. As yet there is no final cost associated with DIT’s role in EU exit.”

A spokesperson for DIT defended its progress. “Overall, our plans are on track and we have met every EU exit delivery milestone to date.

“This is not slippage; we have deliberately adjusted some downstream work strands as a result of the changes to the EU exit negotiation timetable.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Thursday 25th January 2018 00.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010