The UK’s minister for exports, Malcolm Offord, has inaugurated a new taskforce to accelerate the adoption and implementation of digital trade in the UK, calling digitisation “the absolute key” to boosting the country’s exports.

The joint Barclays-ICC UK digitisation of trade taskforce, launched at the House of Lords on July 13, brings together stakeholders across the trade ecosystem to provide strategic advice to the UK government on advancing the digitisation agenda.

Co-chaired by James Binns, global head of trade and working capital at Barclays, and Chris Southworth, ICC UK secretary general, the taskforce will meet every three months until May 2024, when it will produce a series of recommendations to government.

Introducing the initiative, Offord, who took on the role two months ago, expressed surprise at the low proportion of UK companies engaged in international trade. “Of 2.5 million VAT-registered companies, 259,000 are exporting, so 10%. I think that’s quite a low number,” he told attendees. “We need to increase the number of companies that export. From an outsider’s view coming in and looking at this fresh, how are we going to do that? Clearly, the key is going to have to be through digitisation.”

The minister also outlined the role of trade digitisation in enabling British businesses to take advantage of the UK’s recent accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

“This is a very large, growing consumer market that wants to buy British goods, but how do we connect the local business in Warrington to Malaysia, to Mexico, to Chile, to Brunei? The answer has to be digital,” he said. “We’re increasing the number of markets we’ve got access to. And we’ve got these new digital tools that allow us to get to them faster, quicker and better.”

According to ICC research, digitising trade could free up £224bn in efficiency savings, drive economic growth and boost SME exports by as much as 25% by 2024. However, this cannot be achieved by government policy alone, said Offord.

“We need to work hand in hand with international allies and industry partners, all pulling in the same direction, in our mutual interest, and the work of key trade practitioners, such as this taskforce, will be absolutely vital to our success,” he said.

The taskforce will focus on five key policy issues. The first centres around executing on the Electronic Trade Documents Bill, which will shortly receive royal assent. As reported by GTR when the bill was introduced in parliament in October last year, without support to take advantage of the legal reform, exporters risk missing out on its benefits.

Working with the Centre for Digital Trade & Innovation (C4DTI), the taskforce will identify the actions required to help ensure early and effective adoption of the new legislation – which will put electronic trade documents on an equal legal footing to their paper counterparts – once it is enacted. These actions include practical advice on how digitisation can lower trade administration costs for businesses, boost security and compliance, and help reduce the emissions caused by flying paperwork around the world.

Meanwhile, as part of wider strategic aims to position the UK as a leader in trade digitisation, the taskforce will put forward recommendations to government on potential collaboration with other jurisdictions, with a focus on the need for greater interoperability and a global recognition of digital trade documentation.

Speaking at the inaugural meeting, the ICC UK’s Southworth said: “The UK is playing an enormous role internationally, leading the drive on digitisation. We’re across every major initiative in the space, and it’s absolutely shaping world trade. We’ve set the world on a trajectory, but there’s a tremendous amount of work to do on the implementation.”

“The objective is to promote more digitisation of trade and for the UK to start positioning itself as not just a receiver of digital trade, but actually a promoter and initiator of new ideas and innovation,” added Binns. “Digitisation is not as simple as it sounds, otherwise we would have done it years ago. But we’ve got to come together, we’ve got to achieve more standardisation, and we’ve got to achieve more technical and legal interoperability if we’re going to make progress.”

The taskforce also aims to leverage technological advances to address existing issues within trade, gathering views from the wider ecosystem on how technology could help reduce the burden. These issues include compliance with mandatory anti-money-laundering and know-your-customer regulations, as well as trade finance fraud – an area the ICC UK and C4DTI have already begun to work on through an initiative launched in February this year.

Finally, the taskforce will set its sights on tackling the adverse impact of Basel III capital weighting thresholds on the provision of trade finance through a data-driven approach. The taskforce will provide policymakers with recommendations based on an assessment of default and loss data on trade finance assets against the current required capital weightings, highlighting the resultant impact on financiers’ ability to provide finance across a range of client segments.

The establishment of the taskforce is one of the main commitments of a five-year partnership signed last year between Barclays and what was then the Department for International Trade to “broaden, deepen and sharpen” efforts to drive increased exports and trade and investment opportunities for UK businesses.

The launch event, at which GTR was present, was attended by representatives from Baft, Barclays, Bimco, the Department for Business and Trade, Dints International, the Federation of Small Businesses, HM Treasury, HSBC, ICC Germany, ICC UK, the Institute of Export and International Trade, JP Morgan, Lloyds Bank, MonetaGo, NatWest and Standard Chartered.

The taskforce will now operate independently, with four further meetings planned at Barclays’ London headquarters before it reports its findings to policymakers. The government will then provide a written response to the taskforce to highlight the recommendations it will take forward, how these will be progressed and prioritised, and how the taskforce and its stakeholders may be able to provide further support.