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Interview: Baptism of fire for new UK Trade Remedies Authority

The UK’s Trade Remedies Authority has faced a steep learning curve since taking responsibility for British trade defence policy in June last year.

Oliver Griffiths, chief executive of the authority spoke to Chris Horseman about the importance of data-driven analysis, the conundrum of assessing competition from China, the problems of staff retention – and why the European Commission isn’t talking to him.

Borderlex: The initial task of the TRA has been to review the trade defence instruments that the UK ‘inherited’ from the EU post-Brexit. How is that process going?

Oliver Griffiths: It’s going well. There were 108 EU trade defence instruments in force at the point of Brexit. Our first task was to determine which of these were still relevant in the UK context.

Of these TDIs, we retained 44, and we are on target to review and re-assess all of them by 2025.

So far, five cases have been completed all the way through to a decision by the secretary of state. Of these, one was revoked because there was no industry support for its retention, two have been rolled over basically unchanged, and two have been tweaked because we felt we could reflect better the UK interest.

We also currently have about 23 ‘live’ cases under consideration.

This includes four ‘indigenous’ cases which are not inherited from the EU. One of these relates to aluminium extrusions – and on that case we are hoping to make a recommendation to the secretary of state within the next month.

We are also reviewing one anti-subsidy case on ironing boards from Turkey, plus two cases on relating to imports of optical fibre.

How has UK trade defence policy diverged from EU policy since Brexit? Have there been any shifts in emphasis?

There are big similarities between our regime and the EU regime. All trade remedy policies are basically very similar, because ultimately there are WTO agreements that set out a lot of the ground rules for every country.

Probably the biggest distinction we have from any of our international comparator bodies is the ‘economic interest test’.

There is something similar in the EU system – which has a ‘Union interest’ test? But our economic interest test is much clearer in terms of the regulations which set out what we are looking at, and which elements we consider.

The second point is on transparency. For each case there is a public file that sits there on the TRA website, and is open to anyone to read.

Trade remedies are something that people in the EU are very au fait with – but we are much more ‘emergent’ in the UK. That means that the conversations that we have in our pre-application office are inevitably very different from the ones you would have in Brussels.

We were always a very ‘involved’ member state when we were in the EU. But it’s something different when it’s actually your trade policy to run.

In June 2021 the UK government used emergency powers to overrule a TRA recommendation on how to roll over the EU safeguards on steel imports. Were you blindsided by that decision?

What we are doing is a technical job. We are data-driven and we use the best available data to come to what we consider to be fair and impartial conclusions.

But steel is always a politically contentious area, and safeguards are contentious as well – because they apply to all of your imports.

Safeguards are really unusual. They have been invoked just once by the EU in the last 15 years, on steel imports. They are designed to be the ‘nuclear weapons’ of the trade remedy arsenal. And we had to look at this transition review in a really short period, when we were really young as an organisation. It was our first major case.

So we were all learning pretty quickly as we went through that process. It was done on a really tight timetable.

It would have been lovely to have had that case a couple of years later once we had really cut our teeth on other cases.

But I am really proud of the team. The risks that we had on that particular case was that our analysis would fall apart, or that things wouldn’t add up, or that we had made bad legal judgements. And actually, the reports have held up very well.

Just how ‘arm’s-length’ is the relationship between TRA and the department for international trade?

Our role is technical. We were consciously set up to be at arm’s length from the government as an independent agency under the 2021 UK trade act.

Call-in powers [allowing the government to take over political responsibility for specific trade defence files] were set up earlier this year.

If you look at the file on that, we had a public exchange of letters and a very respectful exchange of views. But that was an exception to the overall ‘arm’s-length’ approach. The arm felt pretty short at that point!

Otherwise we meet regularly with ministers – and I have not felt any political pressure from government to follow a particular line.

Are you comfortable with the demarcation of roles between the TRA and the department for international trade?

Our trade architecture in the UK was set up quickly, very largely from scratch. The 2021 trade act in quieter times, would have received a lot of scrutiny, but in fact it didn’t feel like this had a huge amount of scrutiny at the time.

I doubt that everything that was set up in that initial period will pass the test of time. It’s inevitable that there will be reappraisals of what we did, and people will ask whether we need to make tweaks. That will be a process that will be ongoing for the next decade.

But I have found ministers very respectful of our role and of the challenges that we are under, and an appreciation of what we have done.

Do you have regular interaction with your counterparts in the trade defence agencies of other countries?

Yes we talk pretty regularly to a number of people that do this job around the world.

But our contact with the European Commission has been pretty much non-existent, because they won’t talk to us.

While things are as they stand on the Northern Ireland protocol, there has effectively been a directive to officials in Brussels not to speak to us on broader trade policy issues.

The issue there has been the application of the EU steel safeguards, and that question of ‘at risk’ goods. That is out with our immediate responsibility and I don’t think that would ever be a conversation that we would be having with DG Trade in any case.

But there is a lot of interesting stuff that we could talk about. For example – how do we deal with China? How do we build up a view on a particular market situation? There are a lot of broader global trends that it would be really helpful for us to talk through with the commission.

To what extent is it possible to accurately assess Chinese companies’ dumping or subsidisation, given the radically different economic and political systems under which they operate?

This is something that everyone outside China is wrestling with.

But there is quite a lot of material and precedent out there. Within the world of trade remedies there is this concept of PMS – or ‘particular market situation’ – which can, in extremis, allow you to take a look at a comparable country which does operate on market principles. There are various proxies of this type that one can use.

The more we can get direct information from companies, or use diplomatic channels to get a proper idea of subsidies from central government, the better.

But we can also look at the question of ‘does this feel right?’, as compared to an economy at a similar level of development that is working on a market basis.

You lost 22% of your staff during 2021. Your chair Simon Walker said in July that the authority would be “making a pay case to the government this summer” to offer staff more realistic salaries. How is that going?

We have put a pay case in to government. That is now with the cabinet office and treasury – the departments which decide on these things. My hope is that we will hear back this calendar year.

What we have been trying to do is to ask the question: ‘How do we value the expertise that we are building up within the organisation?’

You have an individual who builds up technical expertise – it typically takes about two years for people to be up to speed on trade remedies. And yet we have no way to reward individuals for that expertise. So they are either going to need to look for promotion internally, or else they move out.

And for this really specialist job, that doesn’t seem like a great model.

The typical turnaround time for someone in the public sector is probably about three years. If we are saying that we need two years for someone to become an expert here, then we are getting one year in which they are really able to contribute with their full expertise. So our pay case is looking to reward people as they become more expert.

At 22%, our staff turnover is too high. Recruitment can be pretty hard work. Only two-thirds of our recruitment campaigns produce appointable candidates at the pay that we’re offering. So if you have a large attrition rate, you are putting a lot of pressure on the broader organisation.

The thing that gives me optimism is that our staff surveys do not suggest that people don’t like working here. I’d be really worried if that was 22% and rising – but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

But some key skills, particularly digital skills, and in auditing and finance, we’re finding it very difficult to recruit for those roles at the moment.

What single thing would most help you and the Authority to move forward with more confidence?

Being able to pay people more.

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