A British government committee has launched a fresh inquiry into the activities of UK Export Finance (UKEF), following criticism of the agency’s project choice, target-setting and lack of user-friendliness.

The International Trade Committee (ITC), a cross-party group of MPs, announced on July 30 that it is seeking feedback on several questions related to the export credit agency’s “operations and engagement with stakeholders”. The inquiry was first mentioned in a separate ITC report published the previous day.

On the operations side, the inquiry is examining the application process for UKEF support, whether particular sectors, projects or destinations receive more support than others, and whether its performance targets are suitable.

It is also asking respondents whether UKEF’s products are sufficiently user-friendly, how well it works with partners such as the Department for International Trade (DIT), and what it could learn from other export credit agencies around the world. The committee is accepting responses until September 25.

A UKEF spokesperson says it is “committed to ensuring that no viable UK export fails for lack of finance from the private sector”. The agency supports exporters through loan guarantees and direct lending, among other products.

“We look forward to working with the International Trade Committee on its inquiry, and will review its findings as we continue to develop our support for UK exports,” the spokesperson tells GTR.

Several of the inquiry’s areas of focus pick up on criticisms raised in a recent review by the National Audit Office (NAO), an independent watchdog that assesses public spending.

That review – which also examined the work of DIT – points out that although UKEF supported exports to 72 countries in 2018-19, 80% of the value of those transactions was concentrated in just five countries.

The NAO adds that the agency has not supported export deals in a majority of African countries despite targeting the continent as a region with significant potential.

It also says stakeholders raised concerns about the process of applying for support, with a high number of projects not meeting the eligibility criteria for UKEF’s digital approval system and so having to revert to time-consuming manual processes.

The audit office report goes on to suggest the country’s export strategy is hampered by weak target-setting, with incentives for quick wins rather than long-term improvements, although those criticisms were aimed more at DIT than the export credit agency.

Other ITC inquiry questions include whether the funding granted to UKEF by HM Treasury is sufficient, and whether its risk appetite is appropriate.

UKEF has this year benefited from £3bn in fresh government funding, as well as a decision to make permanent a previously temporary £2bn Brexit fund, bringing its spending power up to £8bn.

However, anti-corruption campaigners have said stress-testing of its anti-bribery procedures suggests it takes on “extraordinarily high risk” across much of its current portfolio, citing recent projects in Angola, Ghana and Uganda as examples.

Respondents are also being asked how UKEF can support economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the extent to which it draws on external expertise in designing and reviewing products.

The British Exporters Association (BExA), which has long called for improvements to UKEF’s operations, says it “stands ready once again to contribute to this evidence base”.

BExA says the latest edition of its benchmarking review – which measures UKEF’s progress against that of other export credit agencies around the world – is due in October.

The inquiry will not focus on criticism of UKEF’s green credentials, however. The agency was heavily criticised earlier this year following a BBC examination of its support for fossil fuel-related projects overseas.

That report, broadcast on Newsnight in January, claimed that UKEF “has helped to finance oil and gas projects that, when complete, will emit 69 million tonnes of carbon a year, according to government estimates”.

But UKEF’s commitment to sustainability has already been the subject of a separate parliamentary inquiry carried out in 2019 by the Environmental Audit Committee.

That inquiry concluded that over a five-year period, UKEF spent £2.6bn supporting the UK’s global energy exports, of which 96% went to fossil fuel projects.