New board member John Alty aims to help IOE and IT influence government and trade policy

Mon 19 Dec 2022
Posted by: William Barns-Graham
Features

Board Member John Alty

Following Brexit, the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT) has increasingly positioned itself as a  key interlocutor on trade policy between industry and government. Its most recent appointment to its board of trustee directors is a clear signal of this.

John Alty joined the board in September 2022 having previously been the director general of trade policy at the Department for International Trade (DIT) between July 2016 – when the department was established – and January 2021. He was also DIT’s interim permanent secretary for the first eight months of 2021.

He was approached by the IOE&IT’s director general and chairman, Marco Forgione and Terry Scuoler, as the organisation looked to strengthen its own policy credentials.

“I started to learn more about the IOE&IT when Marco and Terry got in touch with me to see if I would be interested in joining,” Alty tells the IOE&IT Daily Update. “I had trade policy experience and this was an area they were looking to strengthen at board level. I was delighted to be elected by members at our Annual General Meeting in September.”

Ensuring continuity

Alty, who worked in the civil service for over 40 years, describes his time at DIT as a “unique experience”. The first challenge was to prepare the business community for a new trading relationship outside  the EU, even though the department wasn’t directly in charge of the negotiations for the eventual post-Brexit EU trade deal.

He explains:

“The first basic thing was to get the UK ready for when we were going to actually leave the EU. We didn’t know exactly when we were going to leave or what sort of  deadlines we were working to.

“The first potential deadline was 2019 – two years after Article 50 was triggered – and we didn’t know on what basis the UK was going to leave the EU. We had to prepare for a worst-case scenario, which was not having a deal with the EU in place.

“In the end, that’s not quite how it turned out – we did have a deal and we left sometime after 2019, following a transition period. In terms of the trade building blocks, I think we were more or less ready by the time we actually left the EU, and we had replicated the EU’s agreements with other markets too.

“From a business point of view, continuity was the most important thing.”

Next up on Alty’s agenda was establishing an independent policy agenda for the first time in decades.

“Ministers hadn't argued to leave the EU to just replicate what the EU was already doing, and so the challenge was to decide almost from a blank sheet of paper what positions the UK would take,” he says.

This included the tariffs the UK would set following Brexit, although the thinking behind this was also to be impacted by the sort of deal the UK was trying to strike with the EU, as well as the demands of other government departments.

“We had prepared a couple of tariffs schedules – one for a no deal which was different from the one we eventually had for the deal.

“And there were difficult intra-governmental discussions behind these. For instance, what tariff do you set for agricultural imports? People will have noticed that this is quite a controversial topic.”

Such issues have continued to impact on the DIT’s role leading the UK’s negotiations for post-Brexit deals with non-EU markets, including with Australia and New Zealand. Alty also points out that trade policy and deal negotiations aren’t just impacted by tariffs.

“We had to agree various tricky areas that were also the responsibility of other departments – from intellectual property to investment to product standards. It was a very cross-governmental effort,” he says.

All change in the civil service

Alty says he was “well prepared” for the role at DIT having previously worked as the CEO at the UK Intellectual Property Office and director general for fair markets (covering competition and trade) at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Having worked in multiple roles in government over several decades, Alty notes that the civil service in general has become more diverse and professional. He also notes that the work requires you to be able to understand and implement ideas on both sides of the political spectrum.

“The emphasis for people coming into the civil service, compared to when I came in, is more on ensuring they have a diverse range of experiences and are doing more operational roles much earlier, as well as working on policy.

“The focus is on ensuring people can lead teams and run large organisations. It’s about ensuring you have people who can take what ministers want to do and turn it into something practical.

“It’s not a job for someone who is strongly of one particular persuasion who couldn’t envisage themselves working across different governments. But it is about taking political aspirations and making sure that they work for people.”

IOE&IT an ‘exciting organisation’

Alty left his role at DIT in August 2021 and has since taken on a role as a visiting professor in practice at the London School of Economics’ European Institute. He is excited by his new role at the IOE&IT as well and says there’s never been a more important time for an organisation like the IOE&IT.

“Trade is of major importance to the UK and has become, in some ways, more challenging following our departure from the EU. There are more companies that need support, like that which the IOE&IT provides.

“But as I’ve learned to understand it better, I’ve also realised what an exciting organisation IOE&IT is, doing many new things, expanding its horizons and remit, while keeping a strong foothold as a membership organisation and in the practical support and training it provides.”

He mentions the IOE&IT’s work in the Trader Support Service (TSS) programme in Northern Ireland and its work establishing new digital trade corridors between the UK and overseas countries including Kenya as examples of the exciting new projects it has become involved in.

His role

Alty sees his role on the board as helping the IOE&IT to “influence the way that government looks at things”. He’s already excited to be able to advise on engaging with government on initiatives like the IOE&IT’s most recent policy paper, ‘Enhanced efficiency: building a UK border fit for the 21st century’.

“It's early days and I'm still learning about what the IOE&IT wants to focus on, but I think that, for instance, the digital borders report we've just produced is a really good example of where there's a link between policy work and very practical improvements that can be made for businesses that are exporting and importing.

“These things don't happen by themselves. Government has choices about where it invests and what initiatives to prioritise. But one of the big virtues of the IOE&IT is that it has a great membership and industry base.

“Unfortunately, but understandably, businesses don’t have time to engage with government or organisations like the World Trade Organization, which can move quite slowly. You’ve got to be in it for the long term and the IOE&IT has a role to play representing businesses in this way.”

Practicalities

Alty also says the IOE&IT has an important role in raising awareness of the practical impacts of policy on trade.

“Getting stories out about the practical impact of what these changes mean is important. Public opinion about trade in the UK is relatively positive, but it’s not always seen positively.

“Organisations like the IOE&IT have an important role to bring alive what these changes mean and the importance of trade policy to all areas of the country and to all types of business.”

Alty says that government has more to do in this regard to, but that work is ongoing to make trade more accessible to businesses, particularly following Brexit.

“I don't think anyone in DIT would say that they have finished the job of making the UK more trade friendly.

“There's lots of debate about the UK's trade volumes and what's happened to them after Brexit. There's no doubt that the exit from the EU means that there's a whole new way of trading with Europe, which is difficult for many people because it's not what they've had to do before.

“We’re responsible for supporting trade everywhere, and if we can get people more confident about trading with Europe again, including those who have stopped doing it, then because trading with the EU is not so different from with the rest of the world, we will be in a better position to encourage businesses to do more trade globally.

“Now that's a big challenge. It certainly wasn't completed by the time I left DIT, but it’s one that government and organisations like the IOE&IT need to embrace and face together.”