Liam Fox’s international trade department has faced further criticism for its lack of Brexit readiness after it emerged that the creation of the watchdog tasked with protecting UK companies from unfair global trading practices was behind schedule.
The organisation exists in shadow form only, as a part of the Department for International Trade, and is without a chairman after the person designated unexpectedly quit last week for personal reasons.
The government said on Wednesday that the Trade Remedies Authority (TRA) would not be established in time for a no-deal Brexit.
Answering the questions from the Commons trade committee on its plans to cope with a no-deal Brexit, George Hollingbery, a trade minister, said there was a team of staff ready to protect British companies’ interests, even in a no-deal scenario.
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However, he said: “We would much rather that this was the arms-length body we would wish to see in place.”
“They are up, they are running. The part of the department is fulfilling the job that the TRA would fulfil.”
Responding, Hollingbery said: “I can be confident with you today that I disagree entirely with your portrayal of whether or not there will be trade remedies in place.”
Chris Leslie, an Independent Group MP and member of the committee, said Britain was left with a “flimsy arrangement” and that he did not see “a robust defence, economic defence for those companies whose markets could be decimated by dumped goods coming in without the sufficient defences.
“We still haven’t got a trade remedies authority established in order to deal with that. Why is this such a mess?”
The creation of the independent watchdog has been plagued by delays amid opposition in parliament and a government distracted by Theresa May’s Brexit plan.
Last week, Sir David Wright, then chair designate of the TRA, told ministers he no longer wanted to take up the role, before the body has formally launched.
The minister said he did not know why Wright, a former UK ambassador to Japan and South Korea, had decided to leave.
Hollingbery told the committee: “He [Wright] decided to move on, that is not something that the department can control. Our job and the right and proper response to that is not to worry particularly why he went but to find his replacement as soon as possible.”
Fox unveiled Wright as the chair designate in late October, saying: “The TRA will protect UK industry against unfair trading practices, so it is in our national interest to ensure it is set up and appropriately staffed now in the case of no deal.”
TRA was expected to be a key component of the government’s post-Brexit drive to expand world trade after leaving the EU. It was intended to propose measures to remove negative effects of other countries’ trading practices on UK industry, such as foreign goods flooding into the UK market with the help of subsidies from overseas governments, or tariffs imposed on British imports.