UK falling short of post-Brexit target for customs agents, warns industry
The UK government is falling far short of a target to train an estimated 50,000 new customs agents that will be needed after Brexit and is “misleading” the public over its level of preparedness, customs and haulage industry leaders warned.
Cabinet office minister Michael Gove endorsed the 50,000 industry estimate in parliament in February and told MPs last month that the government was in discussions about creating a new customs agent academy while working with industry “to ensure that they have the capacity required”.
However, Robert Keen, director-general of the British International Freight Association (BIFA), the industry group that is the main provider of customs training in the UK, said the country was falling “many thousands short” of the target.
In a letter to the parliamentary committee responsible for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, to which Mr Gove gave evidence on April 27, Mr Keen raised “ongoing concerns” over “potentially misleading and ambiguous comments” from politicians and government.
Mr Keen said that BIFA had managed to put just 1,298 people through its online customs declaration training in 2019. A further 244 online courses were completed by February this year, but in March and April there were only 96 enrolments, a drop attributed to the coronavirus crisis.
Industry insiders said that many of those who had taken up training were already working in customs and were taking advantage of grants to enhance existing skills, rather than bringing new capacity to the industry.
Separately, 870 courses have been completed at an online customs academy set up by the government in September last year with the Institute of Export and International Trade.
The National Audit Office has estimated that 145,000 UK businesses could need to complete customs formalities for the first time from next January, leading to an additional 200m customs declarations a year.
In his letter, Mr Keen warned MPs that it took “at least a year” to train a customs agent to handle “routine inquiries” given the complexity of the forms. But with just six months to go until the new customs regime comes into force, concerns are now growing across the haulage industry about the levels of preparedness.
Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, said he believed it was now “impossible” to train the number of people required in time. “It is impossible to think we can train this number of people, get them ready and processes in place to be ready on the first of January,” he said.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, which represents frozen and chilled food logistics businesses, said politicians were showing “wilful ignorance” about how “hopelessly ill-prepared both sides are to operate a functioning customs border” in January.
“We didn’t have enough time to put in place the infrastructure, people and systems we needed before Covid-19, [and] we certainly don’t now,” he said.
As pressure builds on government, Mr Keen also suggested Mr Gove may have overstated the status of a new customs academy in Kent when he told MPs the government had been “talking to the industry” about the facility.
Mr Keen said he was aware the idea had been mentioned in an “informal comment” in a recent meeting of the joint customs consultative committee, the body through which HM Revenue & Customs consults with industry, but had not apparently progressed further.
“We do not believe there have been any substantive talks subsequently, certainly not with the trade body that officially represents UK freight-forwarding companies, BIFA,” Mr Keen said in his May 11 letter to Hilary Benn, chair of the committee on the future relationship with the EU, seen by the Financial Times.
Asked for details about the plans for the academy — its location, funding or any timeline — the cabinet office declined to provide any further information.
The government has been slow to provide information on the numbers of customs agents that have so far been trained.
In his April 27 evidence to Mr Benn’s committee, Mr Gove said he would report back on the “uptake” for customs training and the “additional number” of agents who had been trained, but had not provided the information to the committee by last Friday, almost a month later.
Jesse Norman, financial secretary to the Treasury, was also asked in a written parliamentary question on May 4 “how many of the 50,000” agents had been recruited, but declined to provide any figures in his reply of May 11.
A government spokesperson said it was working to increase the existing customs sector to encompass EU trade after 2020 through a £34m grant scheme. “Thousands of agents, freight forwarders and parcel operators have taken advantage to improve everything from IT hardware to staff training,” the spokesperson added.