The Shady ‘Shadow’ Trade Authority: A Costly Example of Government’s Hollow Brexit Posturing
Sarah Hurst recalls her Kafkaesque experience of waste and confusion at the Trade Remedies Authority.
Just over a year ago, what was supposed to be the UK’s new Trade Remedies Authority (TRA) opened an office in Reading. This was an important step for one of the key new bodies implementing post-Brexit Britain’s bold new independent trade policy.
Seeking a reliable civil service job, I joined as an “investigator” on 1 October 2018. I had voted to remain in the European Union, but I accepted that the UK would be leaving and that there would be things to do afterwards to pick up the pieces.
Like many of my almost 100 colleagues, I didn’t know what “trade remedies” was about and I had assumed it had something to do with solving trade disputes.
This assumption seemed reasonable when, as part of my interview for the role, I was asked to comment on a dispute between two pig farmers. The recruitment agency that hired us, TMP, could not provide any information about what the job entailed. Former police officers and an assortment of recent graduates were among the 50 or so investigators, tasked to work alongside teams of economists and lawyers. The former head of the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, Claire Bassett, was appointed as chief executive of the TRA.
On arrival, we discovered that we were not officially the TRA, but the “shadow TRA”, because the TRA could only be created by the passing of the Trade Bill, which was held up by the House of Lords amendment calling for the UK to stay in a customs union with the EU. The bill lapsed when Parliament was prorogued by Boris Johnson.
As the Shadow TRA, we were not allowed to travel or interact with any other departments. All we could do was stay in the office and have endless meetings with each other, often speculating on if and when Brexit would happen. We were never even allowed to make phone calls or meet anyone outside the building in case we accidentally gave away information about our non-work – not even people from other Government departments such as HMRC, which could have exchanged important information with us.
Meanwhile, we eventually found out what the TRA was actually meant to do: not resolving trade disputes at all, but conducting months-long investigations of dumped and unfairly subsidised imports based on World Trade Organisations (WTO) guidelines, which primarily meant comparing thousands of sales of a particular product that could be anything from Chinese ironing boards to Turkish rainbow trout, and checking to see if the sales were made here at lower prices than in their home country.
This was a job for accountants and tax experts. But it didn’t matter that much because we couldn’t do the job until we had left the EU.
Although we were meant to be on a temporary emergency budget, money was found to pay Deloitte £2.6 million to run a training course for us with experts from Brussels. Several people who received the training immediately left to pursue other jobs, making it even more of a wasted expense.
From this training, it became clear to me that the European Commission does an excellent job of conducting trade remedies investigations on behalf of the entire EU, and the UK industry is generally happy with the results.
If dumping or unfair subsidies are proven, the EU can impose a tariff on the product from the targeted country to protect domestic manufacturers. UK sectors that are most involved in EU trade remedies cases, including steel and ceramics, have justifiably expressed concern that this new UK TRA will not provide the same level of protection as the EU does.
UK industry is rightly concerned that the UK Government’s commitment to liberalised trade means that there will be a tendency to impose lower tariffs rather than higher ones. Also, there may only be one or two UK manufacturers of a product, meaning that it will be much weaker when bringing a case against countries such as China or the United States.
what the papers don’t say
A year later, the Shadow TRA has been renamed the Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate of the Department for International Trade and the Government claims it is ready to act after Brexit, although what exactly it does depends on whether there is a deal with a transitional period or a ‘no deal’ scenario. Its abilities are also completely unproven.
It really doesn’t make sense why the Department for International Trade did not just prepare trade remedies in-house in London in the first place. Instead, in a mad rush to claim another Brexit readiness achievement, it prematurely opened an office full of the wrong people who were unable to do anything.
The £2.6 million paid to Deloitte was only a small part of the public money wasted by this misadventure, not to mention the wasted talent and dislocated careers. (Later, the trade remedies team hired Deloitte again for the so-called “Project Impress” to create templates for dumping calculations.) The office rent, nearly 100 salaries, a high profile chief executive and recruitment fees don’t come cheap.
I myself was kicked out of the door unceremoniously for asking too many awkward questions about something that should be transparent. The failed, wasteful establishment of the TRA is a Brexit lesson the Government should learn from and be held accountable for.
Byline Times has contacted the Department for International Trade for comment, but it has not received a reply.
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