With the post-Brexit transition period now underway, the UK’s exporters are currently working to make sense of what the new “global” Britain will mean for their businesses. But rumours about the future of the department for international trade (DIT) have left many fearing for what is to come.
Later this month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce a government reshuffle, with a potential reorganisation of departments on the cards. First on the chopping block is said to be the DIT, which will – if talk is to be believed – be subsumed into the department for business, energy and industry strategy (BEIS).
One reason for rearranging departmental responsibilities is to bring ministers and officials working on related issues together under one roof. Creating bigger departments, responsible for a wider range of connected policy areas can help maximise synergies or resolve conflicts. However, the negatives brought about by bringing DIT and BEIS together under one roof would vastly outweigh the negatives, according to the British Exporters Association (BExA).
“BExA has long campaigned for a joined-up, whole-government approach to exports and, whilst it may appear counter-intuitive for us to campaign for the independence of the DIT, there are several good reasons why this should remain the case,” the organisation says. “The DIT provides a focal point for UK business activity overseas. It is known to exporters, buyers and foreign governments alike. DIT negotiates and arranges trade agreements with a clear link to UK exporter interests. UK businesses looking to export have a clear and obvious route to export information and opportunities through DIT.”
Exporters of all sizes and industries roundly welcomed the formation of the DIT following the UK’s 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU. If claims of its demise are true, the question then arises as to where this would leave the department’s much-vaunted export strategy, seen as key to the country’s independent trading future.
Launched by then-international trade secretary Liam Fox in 2018, the strategy called for an increase in exports as a percentage of GDP to 35%, from 30% previously, and saw the development of the DIT’s website into a “single digital platform” for practical advice and assistance on exporting; and the creation of an online tool to enable UK businesses to easily connect to overseas buyers, markets and other UK exporters.
While its reception thus far among the exporting community has been somewhat muted, a DIT spokesperson tells GTR that the strategy is meeting its aims to “make Britain a 21st century exporting superpower”, adding that since its launch, many measures have already been implemented, including the launch of the export champions community and the announcement of the UKEF general export facility, which allows the UK’s export credit agency to support the UK’s smallest exporters by assisting with their overall working capital requirements, as opposed to its traditional method of financing specific contracts.
“The DIT’s export strategy provides a framework to engaging UK businesses and increasing UK exports. This must be implemented and not be waylaid,” say BExA co-chairs Geoffrey de Mowbray and Marcus Dolman. “Trade policy will be lost amongst competing department priorities should the DIT not remain independent.”
They add that if the UK is to truly flourish post Brexit, then the responsibility for boosting international trade must rest with a dedicated cabinet minister: “Diluting the focus on trade through a merger with BEIS sends out the wrong message – that we are no longer serious about trade – to the UK’s exporter community, to our overseas buyers and to foreign governments.”
GTR’s attempts to confirm the potential merger with the DIT, BEIS and Number 10’s press office have thus far been rebuffed. For now, the UK’s exporting community can only watch and wait for an official announcement to be made, while BExA continues to urge the prime minister to retain the DIT and its responsibilities, for the good of UK business and the UK economy.