The Department for International Trade (DIT) has successfully led the delivery of a challenging and intense programme of trade negotiations to a tight timeframe, but it needs to manage potential risks associated with negotiating and implementing multiple trade agreements, according to a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

Following the UK’s exit from the EU, the UK is responsible for its own international trade policy for the first time in almost 50 years.1 The UK government is now responsible for negotiating multiple free trade agreements (FTAs)2 at the same time as developing an independent trade policy, new functions, and capabilities across government. DIT has made significant progress in building its capacity to run multiple trade negotiations. It has increased the number of staff supporting trade negotiations and has worked with other departments3 to set up effective governance and project management arrangements, develop capability and agree a trade negotiations plan.

Ahead of the EU transition period deadline of 31 December 2020, DIT worked with other departments to successfully transition 33 of the 39 existing EU trade agreements (98.6% by value) that the UK was previously party to, with three further deals agreed during 2021. The transitioned deals include an agreement with Japan which ensured market access for UK and Japanese traders and went further than the existing EU agreement in some areas, including provisions to allow data to flow freely between the two countries.

DIT has also made progress with an intense programme of negotiations with new trade partners. In June 2021, DIT signed an agreement in principle4 with Australia, and in October 2021 with New Zealand. In 2021 the UK began trade negotiations to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, an FTA between 11 countries around the Pacific Rim.5 DIT also undertook public consultations on planned negotiations with India, the Gulf Cooperation Council6, Canada and Mexico. DIT has also progressed negotiations with the US, a trading relationship representing 16.8% of UK trade in 2020, but the US administration is reviewing its approach to trade policy generally, including with the UK.

However, the speed and intensity of the negotiations puts pressure on resources across government. It also compresses the time available for analysis to support decision making, and for consultation with Parliament, stakeholders and the wider public.

64% of total UK trade is with countries now covered by FTAs (including agreements in principle), against DIT’s aim of bringing 80% of trade under FTAs by 2022. By 15 years after implementation the FTAs are projected to contribute between 0 and 0.16% of GDP (0 – £3.4 billion). DIT estimates that the UK’s agreement with Japan will add 0.07% (£1.5 billion) to GDP each year. If signed, the UK’s agreement with Australia will add up to 0.02% (£500 million) and with the US up to 0.16% (£3.4 billion). FTAs may deliver other benefits such as supporting broader geopolitical objectives or achieving greater global influence on key issues, but these are more difficult to measure.

The success of an FTA depends on DIT and other departments supporting UK exporters to seek new commercial opportunities using these agreements.7 However, indicative data suggests that UK businesses’ use of FTAs may be low. In 2020-21, 24% of DIT’s total spend was on supporting exports. In 2021-22, DIT’s initial budget for supporting exports was £127 million, 19% of its total budget, and the 2021 Spending Review provided additional funding to improve services for exporters and investors. DIT needs to have the right balance of effort between negotiating new deals and ensuring that secured agreements deliver benefits.

As DIT’s programme of trade negotiations progresses to the next stage, the NAO recommends that DIT should bring together its trade strategy in one place. This would help to clarify how the government’s international trade ambitions help it achieve domestic and wider policy objectives. DIT should work with other departments to develop a clear plan setting out how it will implement and promote each new FTA. It should also continue to improve the effectiveness of its engagement with businesses, consumers, the public and Parliament.

“The Department for International Trade has built its capacity to lead a challenging and intense programme of trade negotiations to a tight timeframe. It now needs to ensure that the deals it is pursuing deliver real benefits to businesses, consumers and the UK economy. It should provide greater transparency of objectives, make best use of stakeholder views, and ensure there is enough focus on implementing the deals already secured.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Progress with trade negotiations

Notes for editors

  1. The UK acceded to the EU (then the European Economic Communities) on 1 January 1973. On 31 January 2020, the UK left the EU and entered a transition period which ended on 31 December 2020.
  2. Free trade agreements set out rules that cover trade between two or more countries. They aim to make trade easier between those countries by removing or reducing existing barriers to trade. Barriers can be taxes charged on goods as they cross borders (tariffs), or rules and regulations that can add to trade costs (non-tariff measures). FTAs are intended to offer a range of benefits to the UK economy, businesses, consumers and wider society by opening overseas markets to UK exports, supporting UK supply chains, increasing consumer choice and increasing the UK’s global influence.
  3. This includes the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), HM Treasury, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS).
  4. An agreement in principle is a summary of the potential terms of the final agreement.
  5. The 11 members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership are Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.
  6. The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
  7. The NAO 2019 report, Preparing for trade negotiations, highlighted that the success of an FTA will depend on DIT and other departments supporting UK exporters to seek new commercial opportunities.
  8. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
About the NAO The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and reports on the value for money of how public money has been spent. In 2020, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £926 million.

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