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UK plan to boost customs recruitment is ‘flawed’, industry warns

Government efforts to boost the training and recruitment of some 50,000 new customs brokers for the coming trade border with the EU are “flawed” and will be insufficient to meet demand, customs, logistics and haulage industry leaders have warned.

The warning came as the government prepared to announce details on Wednesday of a new £50m fund to support recruitment and training and the purchase of IT equipment needed to cope with an estimated 215m additional custom declarations annually after the Brexit transition period expires at the end of the year.

Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, the UK industry body whose members operate more than 100,000 trucks, said that funding was too meagre and the scheme too narrowly focused to address the vast logistical challenge that lay ahead.

“The government is completely complacent on this issue. It takes six months to a year to train one person properly and as it stands today we have five months to do this. 

“Whatever the framework that is announced on Wednesday it will not support speeding this up to the degree that is required. No matter which way you turn this is flawed,” he said.

Among the key issues raised with the government is how companies which have hit the EU’s state-aid limits of €200,000 over three years as a result of the Covid-19 crisis will still be able to access the grant funding.

Industry leaders called on ministers to ensure the remit of the scheme was wide enough to include general traders and not simply customs intermediary businesses, which industry estimates amounts to only 500 to 600 companies.

Robert Windsor, executive director at Bifa, the international freight forwarders’ association, said money was not an instant panacea warning that £50m — or £1,000 for each new agent — would have “little impact” on the problem.

He said the government had failed to recognise the practical constraints to building capacity in the industry which was still reeling from coronavirus. It was also still waiting to see how much EU trade would actually survive after the transition period ends given the additional bureaucratic costs.

Many Bifa members have frozen recruitment because of the Covid-19 crisis, and others were reluctant to accept new clients that had no experience of customs procedures, because the risks and liabilities could be too large. The association’s current training in-take is running at about 50 enrolments a month because of the pandemic.

Marco Forgione, director-general of the Institute for Export and International Trade (IOE), a professional body providing support to business, said government messaging that the £50m funding was purely for intermediaries firms had caused confusion.

“We have three generations of business leaders who have not had to complete a customs form to do trade with Europe. There has to be flexibility not just for business, but also for individuals. We’ve got to build capacity because there is going to be a lack of capacity come January 1 for sure,” he said.

The government will have invested a total of £84m to boost customs training, including a new online customs academy. This has completed some 3,000 courses, with Bifa training another 1,700 intermediaries since 2019, leaving a huge shortfall.

Although industry has estimated 50,000 new customs agents will be required, liability for the declarations will remain with importers and exporters, meaning companies will also need to build in-house customs expertise.

A straw poll of 1,000 companies on a webinar held by Mr Forgione last week found companies split almost down the middle between those who intended to use intermediaries and those who would also do their own submissions.

Several insiders involved in consultations for the scheme have complained to the FT of a lack of detail, lack of listening and lack of co-ordination from HM Revenue & Customs with too many questions still unanswered.

One described the government’s approach as “like the Somme”, blindly throwing people and resources at the problem without thinking strategically.

Bob Sanguinetti, chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping, said “time was running out”, with less the five months to go until the Brexit transition period expires. 

“We also want to see greater co-ordination with businesses and for government to listen more closely to the views of industry to ensure we have the right processes in place from January 1 2021,” he said

HMRC did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

This article was first published at https://www.ft.com/content/a5d7f641-b5b4-4b29-b591-8102fd3913a3

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